Gov. Brad Little knew something was up as soon as he walked off the stage Thursday at the Republican Governors Association spring policy conference in Nashville.
His phone was vibrating.
Secretary of State Lawerence Denney was on the other end.
And he wasn’t just calling to shoot the breeze.
“He says, “Brad, I’ve got an executive order here,’” Little said in a lengthy interview with the Idaho Capital Sun in his office Tuesday morning.
“That’s when I first found out about it.”
While she was serving as acting governor, Lt. Gov. Janice McGeachin issued an executive order banning the state and local units of government, including schools, cities and public health districts, from mandating masks to prevent or slow the spread of contagious disease.
McGeachin never gave Little or schools a heads up that the executive order was coming. Little returned to Idaho on Thursday night and issued his own executive order Friday morning, which rescinded McGeachin’s executive order and was retroactive in an attempt to make it as if McGeachin’s order never existed.
How Little reacted to McGeachin’s order
Idaho has never had a statewide mask mandate, and still doesn’t.
Since lifting the stay-home order, the hallmark of Little and the state’s approach to the coronavirus pandemic was to implement a four-stage reopening plan and allow schools, governments and health districts to make their own local decisions about mandating masks.
As for the executive order, Little said Denney called him as soon as McGeachin delivered the order to Denney’s office to sign, which Denney did.
“(Denney) just said it was to repeal the mask order,” Little said. “And I was going, ‘Repeal what?’”
Thanks to the call, Little was one of the first to know — he said his staff didn’t even know yet.
There wasn’t much Little could do while out of the state in Nashville. But he said he told a few other governors about it.
When he returned to Idaho, Little began working through his options.
“We did some work Thursday night on the pros and cons of issuing a new EO (executive order) and a statement,” Little said.
Friday morning, he and his staff reassembled to look at everything again.
Ultimately, he announced the new executive order at about 11 a.m. Friday.
“If it would have just been, ‘we’re going to repeal the statewide mask mandate, you know, my initial reaction was ‘OK,’” Little said, noting there is no statewide mask mandate to repeal. “I just don’t think people think it’s the proper role for the state executive branch to be dictating to local entities.”
Little has several problems with the order
In an interview Thursday with the Idaho Capital Sun, McGeachin said mask mandates in schools were a big part of the reason she issued her order.
“It really is a response to what I’ve been hearing from people across Idaho,” McGeachin said. “We’re in a different place today than we were a few months back. The vaccine is readily available to whoever wants to have it, and the protection is there.”
McGeachin’s executive order had exemptions for hospitals and long term care facilities.
But it didn’t exempt prisons, Idaho Department of Health and Welfare workers investigating diseases such as tuberculosis or lab technicians handling infectious, deadly disease.
“You should only do these things if there is an emergency; particularly changing lines of authority, particularly changing policy, ” Little said.
Little’s strongest response came in a written statement issued Friday, when he said McGeachin’s actions were “an irresponsible, self-serving political stunt” that disrespected the rule of law and threatened the state’s ability to protect children, seniors and first responders.
“This kind of over-the-top executive action amounts to tyranny — something we all oppose,” Little wrote in the statement, which he addressed to “my fellow Idahoans.”
“There were multiple problems,” Little said in Tuesday’s interview. “I’m a believer, coming from my business background, that responsibility and authority ought to match up.”
“Just as we get irritated as a state when the federal government basically short-circuits our authority and responsibility — and we say that all the time and occasionally we’ll say, ‘well this is different,’ but if you default to that, then you have got a better partnership with the cities and the counties and the school boards,” Little added.
The Idaho Constitution gave McGeachin the authority to issue the order
Little was out of state, which means he was no longer acting as Idaho governor.
The Idaho Constitution requires that when the governor is out of state, the lieutenant governor acts as governor.
He said he followed the same protocol that previous Gov. Butch Otter used to send out a letter to the lieutenant governor’s office alerting them to his planned trip out of state.
After sending the letter, Little’s staff learned McGeachin was unavailable during the first part of Little’s trip out of state on Tuesday. As a result, Senate President Pro Tem Chuck Winder, R-Boise, served as acting governor Tuesday and Wednesday, following the order of succession.
But by Thursday, McGeachin was in Boise, serving as acting governor with “the powers, duties and emoluments of the office,” just as the Idaho Constitution spells out.
It isn’t unheard of for a lieutenant governor to exercise some of those powers as acting governor. Little served as lieutenant governor for 10 years. During that time, he declared a disaster for Weiser during the 2017 “snowmageddon” winter while then-Gov. Butch Otter was out of state and Little was serving as acting governor.
Little also signed a higher education stabilization bill into law one year while Otter was out of state, but Otter knew the bill was coming and the two discussed it and agreed in advance that Little could sign it as acting governor, Little said.
Political rivalry heats up ahead of 2022 election
Little called McGeachin shortly before 11 a.m. Friday to give her a heads up that he was about to rescind her executive order.
She didn’t answer.
He said he left a message and had not heard back from her as of Tuesday morning.
“It was my choice to call her and give her a heads up,” he said.
Little said he has seen McGeachin about three times in the last three weeks at events.
“It’s not as cordial as I wish it was,” Little said when asked to characterize their relationship.
“Civil, but maybe not cordial.”
“It’s no secret it’s going to be a little tougher going forward,” he added.
Without elaborating, Little said McGeachin’s executive order will affect his decisions to travel out of state in the future.
“Obviously it will factor into some of my calculations,” he said.
This isn’t the first time Little has left the state and McGeachin has served as acting governor.
In 2019 McGeachin presided over a rally of the Real 3%ers of Idaho militia group on the Statehouse steps while she was acting governor. She then administered an oath to the group’s members to defend the Constitution.
This was, however, the first time McGeachin has served as acting governor since announcing her candidacy May 19.
Thursday’s executive order could be viewed as a sneak peak at the promotion McGeachin has her eye on. She has already announced she is running for governor as a Republican in 2022.
Little, a fellow Republican who is in his first term, has not announced his plans. He has said people shouldn’t be surprised by his ultimate decision.
“You wouldn’t be honest if you didn’t say you were thinking about it,” he said.
In Idaho, the governor and lieutenant governor don’t run for office together as a ticket, like the president and vice president, or like the governor and lieutenant governor in some other states.
Although he hasn’t officially entered the race, the rivalry between McGeachin and Little likely to continue through the May 17, 2022, Republican primary and throughout the rest of their current terms, which both expire after the November 2022 general election.
“Whether I modify my travel schedule, anything you can do by executive order you can undo by executive order, but that is not good policy,” Little said.