Little rescinds McGeachin’s order on mask mandates

Acting quickly on his return to Idaho, Gov. Brad Little on Friday reversed Lt. Gov. Janice McGeachin’s attempt to ban mask mandates in Idaho.

The move — the second round in a duel of executive orders between Little and McGeachin — comes just 24 hours after McGeachin sought to block mask mandates issued by any local governments, including school districts.

In a news release Friday morning, Little called McGeachin’s order on mask mandates an “irresponsible abuse of power” that “amounts to tyranny.”

“(McGeachin’s) executive order unilaterally and unlawfully takes away authorities given to the state’s mayors, local school board trustees, and others,” Little said Friday morning. “Just like the states begrudge federal government mandates, local governments in Idaho resent the state doing the same thing.”

In essence, Little’s Friday morning executive order returns the state to where matters stood Thursday morning. It means that school districts can still issue local mask mandates. Many school districts are wrapping up the 2020-21 academic year, and some districts have already rescinded its mask requirements. But some districts — including the state’s largest district, West Ada — still have requirements in place.

On Thursday, the Idaho School Boards Association said it believed McGeachin’s anti-mask mandate order was invalid, overriding state law and the Idaho Constitution, and decisionmaking power given to trustees.

Meanwhile, Friday’s developments mark an escalation in the internal feud between Little and McGeachin. The two Republicans have sparred publicly for more than a year over Little’s coronavirus response and his use of executive orders during the pandemic. McGeachin last week announced her candidacy for governor, setting up a showdown with Little in the May 2022 GOP primary.

How we got here, and where we stand now

The story began earlier in the week, when Little left for Nashville, Tenn., to attend and speak at a Republican Governors Association spring conference.

When the governor is out of state — or incapacitated and unable to perform the duties of the job — the lieutenant governor is first in line to serve as acting governor.

In that role, McGeachin issued her order to ban all local mask mandates, effective 11 a.m. Thursday.

“The remaining mask mandates issued by the health districts, public schools, school districts, and political subdivisions of this state due to the COVID-19 fail to serve a public health or safety purpose and unnecessarily restrict the rights and liberties of individuals and business in this state,” her order read, in part.

Upon his return to the state, Little issued his executive order, which attacked McGeachin’s order on several fronts. He said the order is essentially a rewrite of a mask mandate bill that passed the House but failed in the Senate — and he criticized McGeachin for failing to notify schools or local governments about her order.

Little made clear that he too felt blindsided.

“Taking the earliest opportunity to act solitarily on a highly politicized, polarizing issue without conferring with local jurisdictions, legislators, and the sitting governor is, simply put, an abuse of power,” Little said Friday.

Little planned to contact McGeachin before issuing his order, said Emily Callihan, a spokeswoman for the governor.

McGeachin quickly fired back on Facebook.
“Today, Gov. Little chose to revoke your personal freedom by rescinding my order and imposing mask mandates on thousands of Idaho children, rejecting the conservative solutions embraced by leaders like Gov. Abbott in Texas and Gov. DeSantis in Florida,” she said. “As your lieutenant governor, I remain undeterred and unwavering in my commitment to defend your rights and freedoms against all who would violate them.”

The politicking intensifies

While Little and McGeachin have been publicly battling since the first days of the coronavirus pandemic, Friday’s news comes after a noteworthy nine days of political activity:
  • On May 19, McGeachin ended months of speculation and announced her plans to run for governor — setting up an uncommon primary battle between a sitting governor and sitting lieutenant governor of the same party. (Little has not announced his plans for 2022, but in a May 19 interview with Clark Corbin of the Idaho Capital Sun, he strongly hinted he would seek a second term.)
  • On May 21, a McGeachin ally, state Rep. Priscilla Giddings, R-White Bird, joined the race for lieutenant governor.
  • On Thursday, House Speaker Scott Bedke, an Oakley Republican and Little ally, announced his plans to run for lieutenant governor, joining Giddings and Luke Malek, a former Republican lawmaker from Coeur d’Alene.

On her campaign page Thursday, McGeachin touted her executive order on masks, pivoting to an appeal to donors.

“One of the hardest things for a candidate to do is to ask you for money, but our campaign needs your support if we are going to keep challenging the status quo,” she wrote. “This is going to be a long and arduous battle against entrenched interests on both sides of the political spectrum.”

Little’s official statement Friday was also infused with election-season rhetoric.

“I do not like petty politics. I do not like political stunts over the rule of law,” he said. “However, the significant consequences of the lieutenant governor’s flimsy executive order require me to clean up a mess.”

About Kevin Richert

Senior reporter and blogger Kevin Richert specializes in education politics and education policy. He has more than 30 years of experience in Idaho journalism. He is a frequent guest on KIVI 6 On Your Side; "Idaho Reports" on Idaho Public Television; and "Idaho Matters" on Boise State Public Radio. Follow Kevin on Twitter: @KevinRichert. He can be reached at [email protected]

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