Our man in the Middle

All sides agree that Kansas lawmakers face a budget brouhaha of epic proportions when they return to Topeka this month.

Fueled further by an election year heating up and the chilling prospect of redrawing legislative boundaries, this session promises to stir up one dilly of a political storm-likely the wildest in more than a decade.

In the midst of those billowing thunderclouds, placed squarely in the eye of the storm, one man exudes a sense of calm rooted in the confidence that comes from a combination of competence and common sense.

Meet State Budget Director Duane Goossen, the man whose job it is not only to understand a state budget that approaches $10 billion when all the numbers are counted, but to explain it and even defend it against the elected and non-elected horde who rise up to contest it.

“It’s mostly visiting with a lot of people,” Goossen said about the essence of his job. “It’s staying informed with what’s going on, then trying to communicate that and understand what the people are doing.”

That Goossen is highly respected by his colleagues for how he does his job may escape the radar of public opinion, but it would come to no surprise to the folks of Marion County, who have been fans of Goessel’s Favorite Son for years.

They and the other voters of the 70th District gave Goossen landslide and usually uncontested wins as their representative in the Kansas House during the 1980s and early 1990s.

Now in his fourth year as budget director, Goossen may claim Topeka as his home, but his heart still beats for his hometown and home district that put him on the path to public service in government.

“People encouraged me a lot, from the very start and on through,” Goossen said. “They gave me a little bit of grace when I didn’t know everything, and helped me. It was kind of a dual process of encouragement and learning. We kind of did that together, I think. I can’t say enough about what I owe them.”

The affable Goossen, only in his mid-forties, credits his heart for public service to growing up in the home of a Mennonite minister.

“I have often said that I learned a lot about politics from growing up in a church because churches are very political things,” he said. “And being in a minister’s household, ministers have to be pretty good politicians-using the word kind of loosely.

“It’s not the same as being a church operation, obviously,” he said of government. “It is here for different reasons, and you have to apply different standards, too. But it is a way of serving people.”

Goossen’s father was a minister in several communities over the years, including Hillsboro and Goessel. It was in Hillsboro were Goossen received most of his grade-school education and in Goessel where he graduated from high school and got his start in business-and in politics, for that matter.

After graduating from Bethel College in 1978, he returned to Goessel and started a home construction business. Soon, he ran for a seat on the Goessel City Council-and won.

“That was a good experience,” Goossen said about his four years on the council. “I’ve had my fingers in something political-either watching it or being involved in it-for a long time, I guess.”

His interest in political involvement prompted him to cast his hat into the ring for the state legislature in 1982. Goossen won easily and embarked on a 14-year career as a part-time state representative.

He says now that he entered the arena of state politics naively.

“When I started in the legislature, I didn’t know a whole lot about how the system worked,” Goossen said. “Even though I had watched it and been interested in it, there was a lot to learn when I got here.”

The support of his constituents and the opportunity to help shape state issues kept him going, he said.

“The more I knew and the more I learned, the more support I got-and the greater longevity that I had, the greater chance I had to make a difference.”

Goossen is proud of the work he was involved in as a member of the Education Committee, but especially a member of the powerful Appropriations Committee. He and his colleagues helped move social services in the state from being institutionally based toward a more community-based orientation.

“Kansas has come an awfully long way on that,” he said. “That’s been very satisfying to watch the progress over the last 20 years. The level of social-service support in all kinds of areas has risen dramatically.”

In the mid-1990s, two developments prompted him to draw his legislative career to an end. His wife, Rachel, had accepted a teaching job at a Mennonite college in Indiana, and Goossen himself was growing weary of the dual demands of personal business and state business.

“I used to joke about all the ‘three-shower days,'” he said, “where I’d have to be switching clothes all the time-having to do construction and be out on the job, then running some place for a lunch of some kind or other, then running back to try to get some construction project finished, and then going back out in the evening for a meeting.

“It didn’t happen every day like that, but the difficulty of ever-more demands of a growing business and also ever-more demands from the legislature just seemed like too much after a while. I finally came to the conclusion that I had to pick one or the other. I decided to pick public service and go back to school-and then see where it would take me.”

He first thought he’d pursue a master’s degree in public administration at the University of Indiana, but became interested in a program Harvard offered for people who had already been working in public fields.

Goossen was accepted into the prestigious program in 1997 and received his degree the following spring. He thought his path likely would lead him away from Kansas, but Goossen was invited by Gov. Bill Graves to be the state’s budget director. He started the job in August 1998.

In that role, Goossen oversees a staff of 20 people-mostly budget analysts-from a surprisingly modest office in the east wing of the capitol.

Goossen said their work follows a routine. The cycle begins in early summer when they issue budget instructions to the 100-plus state agencies. The preliminary budgets are returned to the office by Sept. 15, and Goossen and his staff begin the challenging task of reviewing each one.

About mid-November, their work is completed and they issue initial recommendations to each state agency, who then have 10 days to respond. Goossen’s office receives the feedback and then issues a final draft by the end of November.

At that point, he and his staff sit down with the governor and spend “a very intensive week, sometimes longer” going over each budget. The budget is finalized in December and the governor usually presents it as a proposal to the legislature during his “State of the State Address” in January.

“(Legislators) use that as a beginning point and then add or subtract to it through the legislative session,” Goossen said. “Then we track all that and follow it through the session. Our job is to explain it to the legislature and tell them here’s what we need, here’s why.”

By virtue of his office, Goossen said he is in the thick of the political give-and-take that occurs as legislators wrangle over budget priorities. He said when the legislative session begins, he sets the calculator aside.

“I spend more time talking to people that I do crunching numbers by quite a ways,” he said. “It’s a lot of visiting with people.”

Goossen said he enjoys the sometimes spirited interaction.

“I sort of accept that as a natural part of this process,” he said. “Like any decision you try to make, you try to convince the people who are making these decisions what they ought to do or why this is the best course. That’s really what we’re trying to do.”

This year’s budget crisis-which Goossen calls the worst in 20 years-will confront the legislature with the challenge of eliminating a $426 million financial “hole.”

But the prospect of relating to frustrated legislators doesn’t seem to intimidate Goossen.

“What I have the most trepidation about is getting people to understand what we’re up against,” he said. “It’s pretty easy to look away.”

As budget director, Goossen said he serves “at the pleasure of the governor.” With Gov. Graves completing his eight-year term this fall, Goossen’s future in this role is uncertain-even if a Democrat should be elected, to succeed Republican Graves office this fall.

“The next governor could, theoretically, reappoint me, or, theoretically, get somebody new,” Goossen said. “It’s whatever the governor wants.”

That said, Goossen knows where he would like to be, generally.

“I like working in state government somehow,” he said. “With what I’ve come to know, I would like to continue on if that can work out.”

He also would prefer to work in an appointed position rather an elected one.

“Personally, I like this a lot better,” he said of his post. “Not that I didn’t enjoy my legislative service, because I really did. But I consider this job to be an advantage in that, working essentially for one person rather than 20,000 people, it’s a little easier to keep focused on where we’re going.

“I can focus on budget issues and make sure I’m responsible to the governor,” he added. “I like that focus. After 14 years (in the legislature), it’s nice to be able to do that.”

Goossen is well aware that government service has its detractors, sometimes with merit. But he’s convinced he’s found his career home in that arena.

“I wouldn’t want to stay in it if I didn’t have a positive impression of it,” he said. “I have a very positive impression, especially how state governments operate-and especially how Kansas operates.

“On the whole, we have very, very dedicated people working in the legislature and in state offices who try very hard to provide good service, make things run efficiently and give the best deal to citizens,” Goossen added. “The level of honesty and good operation really is very high. I think Kansas would compare well with any state in the nation.

“For myself, government can have a very positive effect on society, on people,” he said. “It’s a good way to help folks, to participate in creating a good society to live in. I think, by and large, people who work in government provide that.”

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