House Republican Leader J.T. Wilcox discusses his frustration over Governor Jay Inslee not including legislators on the important decisions that are impacting every Washington resident and will affect the state’s resources for decades. Even though Wilcox is not one of the plaintiff’s in the lawsuit filed against Governor Inslee from legislators, he does support their efforts. Wilcox also discusses how the lockdown is having a negative impact on people’s physical and mental health, from not being able to have “elective” procedures or receive preventative care, to depression, to not being able to attend 12-step meetings.
As House Republican Leader, what is your role in the coronavirus crisis?
I’m glad you asked that. I’d like to put one rumor to bed: As a legislative leader of one of the four caucuses, I did not formally approve the governor’s “Stay Home, Stay Healthy” order or any of the extensions of it. The governor wrote that proclamation in a way that did not require legislative approval to implement or extend it.
Now, the four leaders in the Legislature do play a role in approving or rejecting temporary waivers of statutes and regulations recommended by the governor. But many of these things are really good for Washingtonians. For example, it makes sense to waive late fees and penalties on tax payments and allow health care delivery through telemedicine. I stand by these decisions and we keep a running list of them on our caucus website for transparency.
What are your thoughts on the governor’s recent extension of his stay-home order?
As time has gone by and worst-case scenarios for our health care system were averted, the extension of his stay-home order deserves more scrutiny — including his “phase” approach for our state. And that’s what you are seeing now. There is a healthy skepticism and fair questions being asked. At some point, executive orders aimed at protecting public health intersect with civil rights. And I think we reached that point when the governor said he would extend his stay-home order to May 31 and probably beyond, without providing any real assurance and timetable for how to safely restart our economy and lives.
Some of your caucus members filed a lawsuit on Tuesday challenging the governor’s stay-home order. What are your thoughts?
I’m not part of the lawsuit, but I support what they are doing. Again, we have reached this point where people understand the economic and emotional devastation this stay-home order is causing. And they are seeing their rights being taken away. When you can go to a marijuana shop but not a mom-and-pop Main Street shop, it does not make sense. When residential construction gets shutdown and public projects like Key Arena continue, it feels uneven and political. There are so many other examples and the governor has had trouble explaining them. So, back to your question, I think it’s time for some important questions to be answered by our courts in these unprecedented times.
Do you think the governor understands the depths of the problems that our economy and families are facing?
No, I don’t. I do not think he understands the economic or emotional toll this is taking on people. I’m not sure if he’s reading the emails or getting the voice mails that state lawmakers are. He might be somewhat insulated from this.
The stories I hear are absolutely heartbreaking. We are talking about people who were thriving in our economy … who now have no job and are having trouble accessing unemployment benefits. And business owners — people who chased down a dream and put everything they had into an idea, only to have it all taken away. And keep in mind — these are not people who made bad choices or misunderstood the economy. These are people who had everything taken away from them through no fault of their own. It is very sad and unfair.
What do you say to people who just discount Republicans as uncaring? I think the governor called that lawsuit “heartless.”
It’s wrong. We are trying to save livelihoods. We are telling the governor, listen — you need to pivot, understand the depths of the problems facing Washingtonians, and be able to do more than one thing at once. We have members in our caucus who are probably considered in the high-risk category for the coronavirus. Yet they are fighting with everything they have for these people who have lost their jobs and businesses.
Representative Tom Dent comes to mind. He’s a self-described “old cowboy” and he gets what’s at stake. He also has a big heart for disadvantaged kids. And let me be clear: Republicans absolutely care about public health and the loss of lives. Any life lost to this disease is tragic. But our state cannot just view public health solely through the lens of the coronavirus.
What do you mean by that?
I believe when we look back at this time period we will learn that the governor’s stay-home orders had devastating consequences for many aspects of society, including health. We know people have put off preventive health care and not been allowed to have elective surgeries. That comes at a cost to health. We know what isolation does to those suffering from depression and other mental health challenges. We know some people can’t go to their meetings for substance abuse support. We know many kids aren’t interacting with those who must report their abuse and neglect. And we know many of those facing domestic violence can’t seek help at their workplace in this crisis. I fear these problems are being exacerbated by extended stay-home orders. It’s horrible to think about. But as a policymaker, it’s my obligation to. And the most important thing we can do is safely restart our economy and restore some normalcy to people’s lives.
What will our ability as a state be to address these problems moving forward?
Greatly diminished. Tax collections for state and local governments are going to see steep declines. We’ve already seen some preliminary numbers and it’s scary. That means government is going to have less revenue to fund the programs and services that address our communities most pressing needs. Put another way: The governor’s extended stay-home orders are making many problems worse and simultaneously weakening our ability to address them in the future.