BOISE — He is a hard bargain in an era of compromise.

That reputation has earned Mike Moyle plenty of fans over the years, as well as legions of detractors.

And he wouldn’t have it any other way.

Moyle, 55, calls himself “just a farmer from Star,” but he is now the longest actively serving member of the Idaho Legislature. He’s been in office for 22 years, including 14 as House Republican leader.

During that time he has become one of the primary authors of Idaho tax policy, as well as the main gatekeeper — some would say roadblock — on proposals to expand local taxing authority.

Since 2007, Moyle has sponsored or co-sponsored bills yielding more than $1.5 billion in cumulative tax relief, including the record $200 million reduction in individual and corporate tax rates approved in 2018.

“That’s something I’ll be thankful for when I leave this place,” he said of his revenue track record. “When I got here, the (top) income tax rate was 8.2 percent. Think about that. And we still have one of the highest rates west of the Mississippi, at 6.925. That’s crazy to me.”

While he is a champion for tax cuts, Moyle turns into the Archangel Michael when governments ask for more. He regularly votes no on appropriations bills, and has stymied multiple attempts to steer additional money to cities and counties — even with the approval of local voters.

That rigid stance on taxes is what many detractors find so egregious. They see Moyle as the main architect of Idaho’s abysmal ranking in per-pupil education funding, its anemic support for higher education and its limited services for those in need.

“We’re in the middle of the greatest economic boom (in state history), and we’re acting like we’re in a recession,” noted Rep. Melissa Wintrow, D-Boise, earlier this year. “This is a (fiscal) crisis we manufactured.”

Critics say the state revenue reductions simply increase the burden on local homeowners, who are forced to adopt supplemental school levies and pay higher property taxes to cover the gap.

Moyle rejects such assertions.

“Most of these complaints are from the left, and you can never give them enough money to satisfy them,” he said. “My policies have kept people in their homes. Otherwise, they’d have been taxed out years ago.”

After he rides off into the sunset, Moyle predicted, “you’ll see things like local option taxes get approved, which will raise the sales tax. Or maybe not. Maybe someone will come in and make sure Idaho taxpayers are protected.”

Blood in the water

Critics and fans alike say Moyle is one of the most powerful lawmakers in the Statehouse, as well as one of the most effective.

“He’s one of the only people I’ve worked with who has a clear picture of both sides of the chess board,” said public affairs lobbyist John Foster. “And like any good chess prodigy, he can play both sides at the same time.”

“I don’t think anyone is better at recognizing the juxtaposition between policy and politics,” added former House Minority Leader Mat Erpelding.

Some lawmakers have long-term plans in mind, with a sure vision of where the state ought to go. Moyle’s strength is in the moment: He reacts to changing conditions; he recognizes when public sentiment and political interests have aligned, and uses that to incrementally advance his own agenda.

He smells blood in the water, and then he strikes.

“I think he uses the short term to gain what he wants in the long term,” said Secretary of State Lawerence Denney, who served with Moyle in House leadership for 10 years.

The 2020 session was a case study in how Moyle operates.

After years of rapidly rising property tax rates in the Treasure Valley, the session began with broad, bipartisan support for some form of property tax relief.

Gov. Brad Little expanded on that in his State of the State Address, when he proposed another $35 million in state tax relief. Little left the details to the Legislature, but suggested the money be used to offset the 6 percent sales tax on food.

For years, Moyle has focused on driving down Idaho’s income tax rates. That’s where he thinks the state gets the most bang for the buck, in terms of attracting new businesses and creating jobs.

But income tax cuts weren’t in the cards this year. The grocery tax was. Property tax was.

So he quickly shifted direction. He signed on to House Speaker Scott Bedke’s $48 million plan to increase the grocery tax credit to $135 per person. And when rogue House members urged a different approach, eliminating the food tax altogether, he authored a bill to do that as well — only his version didn’t compensate cities or counties for the millions they would lose through the sales tax revenue-sharing formula.

He then maneuvered things so his bill was the only one of three repeal proposals to survive a House Revenue and Taxation Committee vote.

Similarly, Moyle sponsored the only significant property tax bill the committee considered this year — a one-year freeze on the amount of property tax any nonschool taxing district could collect.

These were classic Moyle moves: see an opportunity, get in position to take advantage, and then elbow the competition aside to make sure your plan wins.

It’s what people admire about him, and what drives them crazy.

“At times, he can be pretty ruthless in pursuing his legislative agenda,” said Erpelding, who went toe-to-toe with Moyle for three sessions before resigning to take a position with the Boise Metro Chamber of Commerce.

Life redirected

Moyle never set out to be a terror on taxes.

Growing up on the family farm near Star, his main interest was in hunting and fishing. The oldest of seven kids — an older sister died when they were kids — he graduated from Meridian High School and then attended Brigham Young University. He’d take classes in the winter and spring, spend summer on the farm and then head into the backcountry in the fall, working as a guide and outfitter.

“I loved being a guide,” Moyle said. “I worked in central Idaho on the Willey Ranch — the second governor of Idaho’s ranch — hunting elk and deer and cougar, fishing. My love for Idaho really grew in those years. I went places very few people have ever been. It was a great experience. That’s where my heart is.”

That path in life came to an abrupt halt when his father broke his back in an ATV accident. At the age of 21, Moyle suddenly found himself in charge of the farm, giving orders to the hired hands and feeling the weight of every decision.

He went on one last guiding trip later that fall, leading a string of pack horses across the South Fork of the Salmon River.

“It was the end of November, and a full moon was coming up over the mountains,” Moyle said. “There was snow on the ground, and I remember thinking, ‘I’m never coming back.’ ”

His youngest brother was about 12 years old at the time. Most of his other siblings were still in high school, and responsibility for the family fell to him.

“We didn’t know if dad was ever going to walk again,” Moyle said. “Mom needed me, so you do what you gotta do. It was no big deal. Instead of going back to school, I just stayed on the farm and kept working.”

That dry-eyed, no-excuse mentality is reflected in his view of government today. At times, he can barely hide his disgust at cities, counties and state agencies that always seem to complain about a lack of resources.

“There is nothing that bothers me more than bureaucrats saying they can’t do without another dime,” Moyle said. “I’ve had to make budgets. I’ve had to deal with commodity prices being down. I’ve eaten a lot of ramen in my life — so when people tell me they can’t make do with what they got last year, I have no sympathy. None. None.”

Taking the first swing

Heartburn over spending and taxes prompted his run for the Legislature in 1998.

After a three-term Republican incumbent voted for a tax increase Moyle didn’t like, he took on the challenge. He won the primary by 13 votes, and hasn’t been seriously threatened in any election since.

He served two terms before joining the House leadership team in 2003, as assistant majority leader.

Denney, who was majority leader at the time, said Moyle’s feisty relationship with the Senate was evident from the start.

“Mike can be pretty territorial,” he said. “I recall times when we’d be meeting with the Senate, and he’d come in ready to fight. It seemed like he was just waiting for me to take the first swing.”

Moyle acknowledged his reputation during a February hearing on the tax freeze bill.

“We can sit in here and banter and make fun of each other,” he said. “I like that. You know me, I like a good brawl. But we won’t find a solution until we start the ball down the court.”

Like many opponents, Erpelding thinks the emphasis on “good” brawler is appropriate: Moyle will duke it out with you one minute and be your best friend the next.

“He and I disagree on just about everything on the planet, but I still enjoyed working with him” Erpelding said. “When you have a relationship with him, he’ll nurture it.”

He’s not all rough edges, either.

Sen. Abby Lee, R-Fruitland, co-chairwoman of the Child Protection Legislative Oversight Committee with Moyle, said he has been a staunch advocate for improving Idaho’s foster care system.

“He has been a champion for change,” she said. “We had a number of foster parents come forward with concerns, and he’s been instrumental in helping get legislation through the House. It would have been difficult to get our reforms through if he hadn’t stood shoulder-to-shoulder with us.”

That “softer” side of Mike Moyle belies his reputation.

“I think people would be surprised to find out how much of a heart he has for children and families,” Lee said.

Mr. Freeze

Most of her Senate colleagues would likely include themselves among the stunned. “Softer” isn’t a term often used to describe their encounters with the House majority leader.

By many accounts, much of the tension between the two chambers in recent years is directly attributable to Moyle. There’s frequent grumbling about his “bullying” approach and “underhanded” tactics.

Foster said if Moyle disagrees with you, “he’ll stab you in the chest.”

The more universal opinion, though, is that if he disagrees with you, he’ll stab you anywhere within reach, front, back or sideways.

Similarly, Moyle can be dismissive of those who don’t fall within his sphere of concern.

“If you’re a single mom with a kid in school or a laid-off factory worker, I’m not sure he’s done much for you,” said former House Minority Leader John Rusche, who battled Moyle throughout his six terms in the Legislature, representing Nez Perce and Lewis counties.

Rusche agreed Moyle can be very sociable, but when the talk turns to public policy “he and the rest of Republican leadership didn’t go out of their way to hear opinions other than their own.”

“I do think Mike is one of the more effective legislators at representing farmers and big business,” he said. “He has a very effective style and position. But is it good for the state? I don’t think so. Freezing out different opinions is never a good thing.”

Moyle’s selective hearing was on full display this session, during three days of public testimony regarding his property tax freeze proposal.

City and county officials from across the state said the measure threatened their ability to provide mandatory public services.

Custer County Commissioner Wayne Butts, for example, said his jurisdiction already has so little taxable property, it may not survive.

“What am I going to cut?” he said. “With the loss of land being purchased by conservation groups and given back to the government, there’s a possibility of us dissolving the county.”

But Moyle insisted a tax freeze was the only way to cap local government spending and force officials to come to the table and talk solutions to the property tax issue.

He repeatedly referenced a “widow lady” he’s known his whole life, who’s worried she’ll lose her house because of the soaring tax bill. It was “immoral,” he said, for elected officials to complain about getting the same amount of revenue they got last year, when the alternative is to force her to cut her budget to pay more in taxes.

“What sympathy does that councilor or commissioner have for her?” Moyle asked. “What they expect her to do is immoral. It’s not right. Government is there to serve people, not throw them out of the homes.”

And yet, by refusing to cede ground, Moyle effectively guaranteed there won’t even be minimal tax relief this year. The Senate balked at his tax freeze proposal, the House retaliated by blocking efforts to increase the homeowner exemption and circuit breaker program, and neither chamber could agree on the grocery tax issue.

Consequently, the session ended without a property tax bill, and with an estimated $80 million sitting in a tax relief account, untouched.

“He talks about the poor widow lady, even while doing everything he can the last 10 years to avoid providing any relief,” Rusche said.

Running to win

Moyle, not surprisingly, refuses to see it that way.

“I think we were successful in the House,” he said, during a session recap meeting with reporters. “We got the freeze bill over there (to the Senate); that would have prevented local taxing districts from increasing taxes to the tune of $140 million. You saw an effort toward the end to give that $80 million back (to taxpayers), but the Senate killed that. To say we weren’t successful on the House side, we got the job done.”

Moyle will very likely take another run at both issues next session.

No one filed against him in this year’s Republican primary. He’ll go up against Eagle teacher Cindy Currie in the November general election. Currie is backed by former Democratic gubernatorial candidate A.J. Balukoff, but she’s running as an independent.

Only three independents have ever been elected to the Idaho House, most recently in 1926. Nevertheless, Moyle takes the challenge seriously.

“I’m looking forward to running again, and I’ll run to win,” he said. “I’m all in.”

Outside of politics, Moyle is relaxed and smiling a lot more these days. After a recent operation to repair a fractured neck — an injury he’s been walking around with since a motorcycle accident five years ago — he’s feeling fine.

“I haven’t felt this good in years,” he said. “I still get to farm, I have an awesome wife, my kids and grandkids are close. I’m very blessed. Life is good.”

Rusche, who still socializes with Moyle, doesn’t expect those high spirits to translate into anything resembling compromise.

“A kinder, gentler Mike Moyle?” Rusche laughed. “I haven’t seen that.”

Spence may be contacted at bspence@lmtribune.com or (208) 791-9168.

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