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Treasurer Nancy Kopp, a Trailblazing Fiscal Watchdog, Reflects on 50 Years in Annapolis

Treasurer Nancy K. Kopp (D) speaks at an August 2009 meeting of the Board of Public Works. Gov. Martin O’Malley (D) and Comptroller Peter V.R. Franchot (D) are in the background. Photo from the Maryland State Archives.

On Monday, state Treasurer Nancy K. Kopp (D) submitted a letter of resignation to the General Assembly.

She will step down later this year or in early 2022 — whenever lawmakers elect a successor. Treasurers in Maryland are elected by a joint vote of the state Senate and House of Delegates.

Kopp’s departure will cap a remarkable 50-year career in Annapolis that began when she signed on as a legislative staffer for the Montgomery County delegation in 1971.

A liberal who came of age in the 1960s, Kopp earned degrees from Wellesley College and the University of Chicago. Motivated by a desire “to save the world,” she ran for office in 1974, winning a seat in the House of Delegates representing Bethesda — and over time developed a passion for education. She is also a stickler for process and openness in government.

She and a colleague were the first women to serve on the House Appropriations Committee, and Kopp was the first state legislator in the U.S. to give birth while in office.

In 2002, she became only the second woman to be chosen state treasurer, and her tenure is the second-longest of the modern era. (Prior to the Constitution of 1851, the state had two treasurers. One represented the Eastern Shore; the other, the Western Shore.)

Although she is not as well known as other top officials, the soft-spoken Kopp is highly-regarded for her diligence, her outspokenness on climate matters and equity, and her efforts to make governmental decision-making more transparent.

Few have played as central a role in determining appropriate levels of state spending and debt or are as knowledgeable about state financial matters.

As treasurer, Kopp serves with Gov. Lawrence J. Hogan Jr. (R) and Comptroller Peter V.R. Franchot (D) on the contract-approving Board of Public Works, and although she has unfailingly cordial relations with her colleagues, her low-key style stands in contrast to theirs.

Kopp discussed her nearly three decades in the House of Delegates, her subsequent 20 years as treasurer, and her decision to step down during an interview with Maryland Matters Senior Reporter Bruce DePuyt.

This conversation has been lightly edited for length and clarity.

Maryland Matters: As Treasurer, you are one of the two or three most important people in the state when it comes to revenue, debt, contracts, the pension systems, and other important matters.

You lead various boards and you serve on others, including the Board of Public Works. And you’re part of the team that Wall Street interacts with. You’ve also said that you enjoy your work. So, why leave now?

Nancy Kopp: The current revenue estimates are really good. We have a new executive director for the pension system, so that’s in place. We have an executive director for the 529 [college savings] program; that’s in place. We have a major IT project at the Treasurer’s office which is nearing completion, so it just seemed to be that things were [in a good place].

MM: Can you talk about how the office has changed since you became treasurer?

Kopp: The world around us changed in terms of technology. Our ability to carry on the state’s banking, our ability to reconcile what’s in the bank — compared to what’s on the Comptroller’s books — to the penny, is possible now and is being done now. It wasn’t done before.

That’s one of the first things I did when I became treasurer, because we had an audit that said the books weren’t reconciled and they never would be. And we said, ‘yes they will,’ and we did.

In our state bond-issuance program, I began a refunding of old debt, to take advantage of lower interest rates. That had not been done for years before me. The comptroller, William Donald Schaefer, did not like the idea. Nonetheless, we did it, and we have saved several hundred million dollars by taking advantage of changing interest rates.

MM: You’ve had to enact deep spending cuts both as a legislator and on the BPW, which has the power to cut the budget up to 25% when the General Assembly is not in session.

Kopp: We’ve had to cut hundreds of millions of dollars.

Personally in my heart-of-hearts, I do believe that the legislature ought to be taking the role in cutting the budget if it’s necessary, because that involves policy decisions. But if the legislature is not meeting, then the Board of Public Works has to do it.

A constitutional amendment passed in the last election, so they [the legislature] are going to be able, going forward, to move money around. It’s going to be a big change. A big change. It’s going to be really interesting to see it’s managed. It will be more like the capital budget.

MM: You wear many hats. You chair the Capital Debt Affordability Committee and the Commission on State Debt and you’re a member of Board of Revenue Estimates. I’ve often heard you say that you wanted people to understand what the treasurer of Maryland does.

Kopp: The Capital Debt Affordability Committee recommends to the governor and the General Assembly a level of borrowing that is “affordable.” That is based on the wealth and the official revenue of the state, which is determined by the Board of Revenue Estimates. Their decision is based on the recommendation of the head of the Bureau of Revenue Estimates after it is approved by a group [representing the state’s fiscal leaders]. That’s the number that the governor has to use in his budget.

So you’ve got this group that’s based on expert input, determining the projected revenue. Maryland, more than most states, has a very focused and integrated fiscal management system, which is one of the reasons we have a AAA bond rating.

MM: I jokingly refer the BPW as the Board of Public Words, because of the recent tendency to use the bimonthly meetings as a soapbox.

Kopp: I can see why.

MM: That’s not your style.

Kopp: The comments often have nothing to do with the agenda before us. We just have very different views of what the Board of Public Works is, or should be.

MM: Were you the first woman state legislator to give birth in office?

Kopp: That’s my understanding. In 1976, my daughter Emily was born. Women were usually older when they ran for office. Things have changed really significantly. It’s remarkable.

MM: And you were among the first women to serve on the coveted Appropriations Committee?

Kopp: Yes. In 1975, the speaker, John Hanson Briscoe, told the chairman, John Hargreaves that he had to have a woman on that committee. Del. Marilyn Goldwater (D-Montgomery) and I were the first women ever appointed to that committee — and it worked out fine. But it was a time of real change. It’s better now.

MM: How did you make the leap from staffer to elected official?

Kopp: 1974 was time of liberal reform and a strong desire to make a difference and make the world better, the community better. We haven’t saved the world yet, as you might have noticed.

Most of the people who knew me well couldn’t believe that I would ever run for office. I’m not a particularly sociable person. And walking up to a crowd of people I don’t know and saying, ‘please vote for me,’ did not come naturally, at all. So it was a challenge to see if I could do it.

MM: You were Speaker Pro Tem in 1992 when you decided to challenge then-Speaker Clayton Mitchell. I was new to Annapolis, but I remember there was a brief period where you seemed to have some momentum. Why did you try to bring him down?

Kopp: We viewed governing somewhat differently. He believed in a command-and-control form of government. I believed in consensus and collaboration. It was okay until the recession — the financial crisis of 1990-91 — and the other members of the leadership, from all over, came to me.

He kept wanting to cut the budget but didn’t want to have meetings. He wanted to make decisions and have his leadership carry out [his plan].

The cuts were hurting Montgomery County and minorities. And some of the people banging on me — I can say now, people like [Del. Tyras S.] “Bunk” Athey, the chairman of Ways & Means, from Anne Arundel County — were not all [from the left].

I tried to get Clay to loosen up, but he couldn’t. So finally I decided this partnership wasn’t working and that I would do something. And for a little while, I was coming out ahead, which surprised a lot of people. But then Clay got the governor, William Donald Schaefer, involved and they turned around enough people.

Well, it turned out that — because Clay had opposition — he had to actually call people and ask them to vote for him, which he had not had to do before. And he got an earful. Elijah Cummings is one of the people who just told him what he thought.

I essentially released my people before the vote and he was re-elected by acclamation.

About a month later, Clay and I had lunch together. We had become friends again. And I remember sitting at Harry Browne’s, and he said, ‘I can’t stand coming across the [bay] bridge any more.’ I said: ‘Clay, you don’t have to do it.’ And he eventually resigned. He was just very deeply unhappy.

That was a seminal experience in my life. I’ll tell you, it was not easy. Looking back on it, it was a great learning experience.

MM: Your term as treasurer has one year left. Why are you leaving now?

Kopp: People always say “to spend more time with family,” and I always laugh. But in point of fact, it’s true. I have three grandchildren. I love to travel. And I’ve been buying books for 60 years. I’d like to have some time to read them [laughs].

It’s been 50 sessions. I’m doing the right thing — for me and, I think, for the state. But I’ll miss it terribly.

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Treasurer Nancy Kopp, a Trailblazing Fiscal Watchdog, Reflects on 50 Years in Annapolis