Play Live Radio
Next Up:
0:00 0:00
Available On Air Stations

State Republican leader talks protecting the workforce — and economy — amid the pandemic

Rep. J.T. Wilcox, left, leader of the minority Republicans in the Washington state House.
Ted S. Warren
The Associated Press
Rep. J.T. Wilcox, left, house minority leader in the state Legislature.

Republicans in the state Legislature have laid out a plan for restarting Washington's economy. It asks the state to suspend some taxes on small businesses, place a moratorium on some rulemaking from state agencies, and allow operations to resume in some sectors.

State Rep. J.T. Wilcox, leader of the House Republicans, talked about this plan with KNKX All Things Considered host Ed Ronco.

Ed Ronco: The plan laid out by legislative Republicans asks for a number of things from state government to help businesses get back on their feet. What's the one that you see as the most crucial? (Gov. Jay Inslee's office also laid out a plan this week for economic recovery.)

J.T. Wilcox: Well, the most important thing is to really switch from what's essential to what you can do safely and get as much of the economy going as you can. You know, we really have to solve two problems, right? We have to do public safety, public health, but we also have to have an economy, because in the long run, that's what pays for government. It pays for the things that people need it. It's going to pay for the coronavirus response now and maybe in the future, too. So we want to look at what can we get going safely and how can we get it going with really good best practices as soon as we can.

Ronco: You have said that public patience is at a tipping point, but there are also polls that say a majority of Americans are concerned about reopening things too early.

Wilcox: Yeah, I've seen that. It's something like 60 percent. But, you know, those things have a very short shelf life and I believe it is moving fast. And, you know, a few weeks ago, this was an issue for small towns or rural counties in Eastern Washington. It felt like they're already distanced. They hardly have any business anyway. And what they have is going away. But just in the last few days ... this whole idea has come to Puget Sound and you saw Tacoma recently decide that they want private sector housing construction and commercial construction to be essential.

In the long run, this social distancing is only going to be effective if people believe in it. And that's why ... modifying the original order, which I supported, to correct the things that maybe don't promote safety and don't seem fair will actually add to public confidence and make it easier to continue social distancing when it's necessary.

Ronco: Some of the recovery steps will perhaps need legislative action. Do you think (the Washington Legislature) will need a special session?

Wilcox: I think it's likely that we will have some kind of a special session. But there's a few things that are so imponderable now that we might create bigger problems if we came in. First of all, we don't have a very good revenue forecast yet. We have a regular revenue forecast expected in early June, and we could probably push that up a little bit if it's necessary.

We also know that we're going to have huge changes in our caseload forecast, which is people that use the services of the state of Washington. And that clearly is going to go up. And probably the biggest imponderable of all is how many dollars are going to come from the feds, and what do we use them for, and what strings are attached. And all those things are necessary in order to do a budget that is going to help anybody and have a shelf life of more than about a month. And especially the federal stuff is still very large and a work in progress.

Ronco: Your family owns a business. Wilcox Farms. They produce eggs and have been doing so for about 100 years or so. How is the economic climate affecting your family's farm?

Wilcox: Well, we don't know yet. It's too early. A large part of our business is food service that's disappeared. But most of those eggs have ended up going into the grocery channel. And then I think the other thing that is really critical is there's a workforce that operates our chicken operations and also operates processing plants that we have around the Northwest. And it's critical that they be healthy. We need them to be healthy. We care about them and their family. They tend to be fairly young. But I bet you that a whole bunch of them have older parents, maybe even grandparents, that they're around all the time. And no employer wants to have preventable accidents or even deaths on their conscience. So protecting a workforce of any kind is super critical, and I think everybody is losing sleep about that.

Ronco: You live in Yelm and a city council member there is introducing a resolution calling on all the businesses in the city to reopen. Are you concerned about the safety of your home community?

Wilcox: Yeah. Yeah, I am. And, you know, I've talked a lot about we should open things that are that can be open safely. You know, that's not the one that I would sponsor. I would encourage people to ask the governor to broaden his look at what can be done safely and having a fairly unified message in that direction has a better chance of success.

Ronco: Some members of your caucus were among the 2,000 or so people who were protesting at the Capitol last weekend. What's your reaction to an event like that? Obviously it has the potential to spread the coronavirus. It's in violation of the governor's orders. What are your thoughts?

Wilcox: Well, I didn't go. These members are independently elected officials and they make the choice that they think is right for them and their district. So I'm not going to criticize them for being there. But I do know that one representative who's part of my caucus, Rep. (Robert) Sutherland, said something about the governor sending "goons with guns" if they wanted to enforce a fishing ban and no other House Republican would dream of using that phrase. And we have a lot of law enforcement officers in our caucus and have over the 10 years I've been there. We have great respect for them and wish them no ill. And none of them could be described in that way. So I've talked with that member and I've talked with many members of my caucus. Nobody would endorse that kind of language.

Ronco: You and I, as well as Speaker (Laurie) Jinkins, D-Tacoma, have all talked on this program before about how bipartisan cooperation feels a little different in a state Legislature than it does perhaps in the other Washington. We've heard elected officials talk about the need to work together across partisan lines. Where is that spirit of collaboration right now?

Wilcox: We've been on a first name basis for many years. It's harder and you have to work harder at it. But, you know, we have a few things common right now. We both got a responsibility to people. Washington. We both have a responsibility to stand up for our branch of government. I don't want to put words in her mouth at all. But I think that that most people in the Legislature feel very strongly that the governor has his role and the Legislature has our role, and when those things, when those boundaries are crossed, they should be in the most minimized way possible. And there's some concern about that. And so Laurie and I have talked about that. But we also try hard to let each other know what is happening and avoid surprises when it's possible.

And I also want to say that, I haven't been in very frequent contact with the governor, but I have been with his office. And, you know, I've been very supportive of his initial moves. And I also with his office know that I was changing my views and being very critical. And they weren't happy, but I want him to hear it from me. You know, we're here to do the right thing, but not always score points. Sometimes that happens, but we should be as honest with each other as we can.

Listen to the extended interview with Rep. J.T. Wilcox. This segment was produced by Geoffrey Redick.

Ed Ronco is a former KNKX producer and reporter and hosted All Things Considered for seven years.