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Goodno adds perspective

ST. PAUL -- Kevin Goodno brings a different perspective to his job as commissioner of Minnesota state government's largest agency. He comes from outside the Twin Cities. On a recent morning, he sat in a glass-walled conference room, a shiny Fargo...

ST. PAUL -- Kevin Goodno brings a different perspective to his job as commissioner of Minnesota state government's largest agency.

He comes from outside the Twin Cities.

On a recent morning, he sat in a glass-walled conference room, a shiny Fargo-Moorhead Convention and Visitors Bureau coffee mug at his side. He called his hometown of Moorhead and neighboring Fargo "a large metropolitan area."

It's a perspective seldom heard in state government offices around St. Paul, where discussion often is limited to the Twin Cities.

"The danger you always have working in St. Paul ... is you view yourself as working in a fishbowl and the environment you are in is what the rest of Minnesota thinks and cares about," the human services commissioner said.

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Living 40 years in Moorhead, including sitting on the City Council and owning a flooring business, allows him to understand that the world does not revolve around state government.

"The perceptions and the news we are fed (in Moorhead) is a whole lot different than what we are exposed to in the (Twin Cities) metropolitan area," Goodno said.

In his first seven months in office, most of Goodno's time has been spent hammering out a budget that cuts more than $1 billion in social service programs in an attempt to help fill a nearly $4.6 billion hole in the state budget.

Goodno's critics don't blame him for cutting human services programs; they blame his boss.

"He's just doing what he is told to do," Sen. Keith Langseth, DFL-Glyndon, said.

Those who represent organizations whose funding was reduced in the 2003 legislative session said Goodno is just working for Gov. Tim Pawlenty, who recommended the cuts and refused to raise state taxes.

The governor said the two of them worked together to form the budget and that it was not just top-down decisions.

"We had some expectations about needing to make the budget work and I kind of asked Kevin what was doable," Pawlenty said. "It was a dialog. It was not, 'Here's the number, go live with it.'"

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Goodno, who served 12 years in the state House, said his critics do not expect a Republican administration to adequately fund social programs.

"There certainly is an expectation by some folks, especially by those who are not Republicans, that certain things will happen in the social service area because Republicans are in charge," Goodno said.

Even critics say Goodno has a good grasp of human services issues, having been chairman of the state's House Health and Human Services Finance Committee the past four years and earlier serving on the committee and helping craft welfare reform laws while Democrats controlled the House.

"I think that given the circumstances and what a challenging budget environment we are in, he is doing an OK job," Joel Ulland of the Minnesota Multiple Sclerosis Society said.

It may not sound like it, but that's high praise in a year when Goodno's department cut funding for programs that affect Ulland's constituents and thousands of other Minnesotans who receive state social services aid.

Pawlenty said Goodno is one of the few people who could run the Human Services Department, with 6,600 employees and some of the most complex programs in state government.

"He can strike a balance between making some of the tough leadership decisions ... and doing it in a way that is the least harmful," Pawlenty said of this year's budget cuts.

Like most state officials, Goodno spent much of the first half of 2003 preparing the budget and shepherding it through the Legislature. Now, Goodno is turning more attention to meeting with his employees and organizations that work with his department.

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"I've been very concerned about potential low morale here," the commissioner said. "I have heard from some folks that we have the lowest morale ever. Then I talk to other folks and they say, 'No.'"

Morale appears lowest in areas that have received the most complaints from people feeling the budget cuts, he said.

Since he has been around the human services arena for years, most department employees either have worked with him or know about him. That means, Goodno said, they have accepted him.

"The devil you know is better than the devil you don't know," he said.

Readers can reach Forum reporter Don Davis at (651) 290-0707

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