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Idaho's lieutenant governor banned vaccine mandates while Gov. Little was out of town


There's something strange going on in Idaho. Gov. Brad Little is out of town on official business, visiting the U.S.-Mexico border with other governors from across the country. In his absence, Lt. Gov. Janice McGeachin is in charge. Here's what's odd - instead of just keeping the train on track, McGeachin is using executive power to change COVID restrictions behind the governor's back.

James Dawson, political reporter for Boise State Public Radio, joins us now for more.

Hi, Jimmy.


SHAPIRO: OK. What did Lt. Gov. McGeachin do this week after Gov. Little left the state?

DAWSON: A couple things - so McGeachin issued an executive order banning COVID-19 vaccine or testing mandates for state agencies and public schools. And what's really interesting here is that Little already banned vaccine requirements for public employees, but McGeachin did take it a step further with testing and schools. She also requested a meeting with the head of Idaho's National Guard to potentially activate troops to help prevent migrants crossing the U.S.-Mexico border, but nothing has come of that yet. McGeachin did tweet earlier today that she's not done when it comes to border issues, and she's still acting governor until Little gets back tonight.

SHAPIRO: And how has Little responded to this?

DAWSON: Well, not even 10 minutes after McGeachin announced her executive order, Little's office responded on Twitter, calling it political grandstanding and promising to reverse it. There have been a couple times over the past few years when McGeachin has jumped in with big changes like this when the governor is out of state. This is the second time McGeachin has issued an executive order while she was acting governor.

And something for people to keep in mind is that the governor and lieutenant governor in Idaho are elected separately, unlike in other states or the president and vice president, for example. And their sour relationship has only been intensifying over the pandemic.

SHAPIRO: What's the political calculus here? They are both Republicans, right?

DAWSON: They are, but she is running for governor next year. So McGeachin sent out a fundraising email about an hour after announcing her executive order yesterday. It really just underscores that bitter relationship that I talked about between McGeachin and Little.

He is running for reelection next year. They're going to face each other in the primary. She's a far-right candidate who has openly supported a local militia group called The Real 3%ers of Idaho.

And it's going to be a crowded field. You have other far-right candidates like Ammon Bundy, who organized the armed takeover of a federal wildlife refuge in Oregon in 2016, potentially splitting her vote. But regardless, she most clearly represents the Republican Party infighting here.

SHAPIRO: The backdrop to this, of course, is the pandemic. So how has Idaho been doing with COVID-19 lately?

DAWSON: It's been pretty harrowing here in the past couple months. State health officials allowed all hospitals in Idaho to ration care if they needed to in mid-September, and that was due to a massive surge in unvaccinated COVID-19 patients. Surgeries for non-life-threatening conditions have stopped in places, and standard health screenings have been delayed, which can obviously lead to more serious illnesses.

And as of Tuesday night, the state recorded just under 3,000 deaths since March 2020. Hospitalizations look like they're beginning to taper off. But if you ask a doctor here, they'll tell you it's still an intense time and the worst we've seen in the pandemic yet.

SHAPIRO: That is James Dawson, political reporter for Boise State Public Radio.

Thanks a lot.

DAWSON: Thanks, Ari.

(SOUNDBITE OF LEAVV'S "LIGHTHOUSE") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.