It's hard to imagine anyone filling the shoes of Mike Ferguson--the state's former chief economist and newly retired director of the Idaho Center for Fiscal Policy--who has spoken truth to Idaho's powerbrokers in the prickliest of fiscal debates
But then there's Lauren Necochea.
"I'm absolutely thrilled to have this opportunity," she told Boise Weekly as she settled into her new role as the center's executive.
She didn't have to travel far. In fact, she's stayed put in her office at Boise-based Mountain States Group, where she has been director of Idaho KIDS COUNT for the past three years. But now, she'll be holding down leadership roles for both organizations (KIDS COUNT and the Center for Fiscal Policy are both integral parts of Mountain States).
BW grabbed a rare few minutes for the ever-busy, double-duty director--an Idaho native, economist, Fulbright Scholar, public affairs analyst, wife and mother--to talk about her personal and professional journey and the uncharted waters ahead for Idaho.
Let's talk about KIDS COUNT for a minute. Your data is apolitical. On the other hand, it doesn't take too long for someone to drill into the research and start seeing themes about how Idaho takes care of its most vulnerable children and adults. Is it the job of KIDS COUNT to define solutions?
KIDS COUNT plays a role in laying out options and examining what impacts of different policy solutions might be. Ultimately, it's up to our legislators to make those decisions.
Do you spend a fair amount of time at the Statehouse?
Is that by design?
For us, it's all about education; it's never advocacy for, or against, particular legislation.
Let's talk about your predecessor Mike Ferguson (BW, Citizen, "Mike Ferguson," Jan. 23, 2013). No one can dispute his research; but he has also had the rare opportunity to provide analysis and, on occasion, call certain portions of our state government onto the carpet for their fiscal policies and practices. Do you see that as part of your new role as well?
The role for the center is to increase transparency and accountability, helping us to understand the implications of decisions being made, so that we can all participate in the process more effectively.
So, let's drill into one of those decisions. Is it your sense that Idaho will have to visit Medicaid expansion sooner than later?
We have an untapped opportunity with huge implications for the financial securities of Idahoans. It's a very positive sign that the governor has called together his Medicaid redesign work group; and they've performed an updated analysis that shows us we can save between $92 [million] and $176 million dollars if we close the coverage gaps.
But you must acknowledge that politics continue to crowd the room with Medicaid, and that appears to be keeping us from having that conversation?
We have to figure out the most pragmatic decision for Idaho.
Your new duties at the Idaho Center for Fiscal Policy will include new staff, yes?
We'll have a communications manager--Jim Munkers--we're sharing his skills alongside his duties at META [Microenterprise Training and Assistance]. Plus, beginning this week, we have Liz Woodruff [former executive director of Snake River Alliance] coming on board.
Well, she's formidable. What will her duties be?
Research and writing for both Idaho KIDS COUNT and the Idaho Center for Fiscal Policy.
Have you known her for a while?
Since childhood. We're pretty excited.
2014 is a politically charged year in Idaho. Every state-elected officer, plus all of the Legislature, is up for grabs this November. How do you make sure that you keep an appropriate distance from all of that noise?
Well for one, we have a bipartisan advisory committee. Everyone in Idaho, Democrats and Republicans, wants to see strong schools, safe communities, and roads and infrastructure that businesses need to prosper. There's no reason for those to be partisan discussions.
My guess is that you're asked to quote statistics all the time. What's the one statistic that everyone in Idaho should know?
Twenty-one percent. The child poverty rate in Idaho is 21 percent. And it has been going up over the last 10 years, even as we come out of the Great Recession.
And when people react with shock to that number, you say what?
We earn very low wages in this state, and we have a high proportion of minimum wage jobs.
The conversation over Idaho's minimum wage is pretty fluid right now.
There is definitely some data we can look at.
So, let me press you on that. Might you address the minimum wage issue within the next year?
I'll say this: We might.
I need to ask you about meeting your husband in Peru. You were a Fulbright scholar at the time and he was a Yale medical student at the time, visiting his hometown of Lima.
He was a colleague of another Fulbright scholar in Lima. And we went dancing one night. We just celebrated our eighth wedding anniversary.
And do you keep up your salsa?
Please; we have two children.