Unspun: Norm Conway — ‘Gotta be fiscally prudent and socially responsible’


Delegate Norman H Conway (D-Salisbury), chair of the Maryland House Appropriations Committee, at his desk in Annapolis. (Kate Havard/The Washington Post)
March 15, 2013

Name: Norman “Norm” H. Conway

Age: 71

Occupation: Delegate from District 38B (Wicomico & Worcester Counties), Chairman, House Appropriations Committee

This week is Budget Week — what’s your role in getting it through?

As the Chairman of the Appropriations committee, I have seven subcommittees, and (phone rings) we — could you hold on for one minute? I’m sorry.

(In the phone call that follows, Conway says he’ll have to look and see if he can find room for “another hundred thousand”).

I’m sorry about that, thanks for waiting.

No problem. You’re a popular guy this week.

It’s not that I’m all that popular, it’s that a lot of people want to tell me how we oughta spend the state’s money. And it’s not just this week, it’s been this way since the beginning, you get in here, and you come in the morning, and there’s people who come in and see you, Linda does the schedule, Karen does the schedule, we try and get the schedules together, and then our committees all work together...lots of people want to share their views.

How do you go about setting a budget?

We have what’s called an executive budget, which means the governor. We have the strongest executive budget process of any state in the nation. The governor controls the budget, and the only thing we can do is reduce it.

Now there are other things that you can do when you reduce it, if there are things that you want, you just reduce enough so that you can get your items on the table...It’s not a try to beat each other thing. You look at everything he’s proposed and things your own communities talk about, and you basically try and listen to other districts, other members, and all together you try and make a plan that brings people together.

What was the plan for this year?

For the last two years, we had to look at our structural deficit, which was at $2.1 billion, expenditures much more than revenues. You see that chart in front of you? You see that wide gap over here? We’ve closed the gap this third year, and that was a major, major, exercise.

How many governors have you been [on the appropriations committee] for?

Glendening, Schaefer, Ehrlich, O’Malley. I’ve been with four.

How does O’Malley compare to the others?

I think you have to look at the economic times you’ve been in. O’Malley came in with a real downturn. He was trying to look at everything to see how we could manage. Everything was going south, and we needed to meet the needs of people in the state. He’s been really a workhorse.

Have you heard any complaints about the budget?

I can’t ever think of a situation where some one body ever got, angry, or you know, very irritated. Everybody’s had input on this budget. I have seven Republicans on the committee. I think my committee’s one of the most open for input. Whatever questions they have we try to answer... But I’m thinking about One Maryland. Gotta be fiscally prudent and socially responsible. That’s gotta be the theme for the budget every year.

What stands out to you in the budget this year?

Closing that gap! And working within the confines of preparing for the federal issue, that we may be hit hard by sequestration, so we’ve had to prepare.

Can you explain some of this stuff on your desk?

This my “no” button. My staff gave it to me for Christmas. You push it, and it says, “NO!”

Is that something you have to use a lot as a budget guy?

I have only used it once on the committee room, and it was for a very specific person.

Can you tell me who you used it on?

No. (pushes button)

What else have they given you?

During a special session of 2007, my committee gave me this magic wand...they though some magic might help me find money easier. Then they gave me that globe over there (points to a crystal ball). Then they gave me a Harry Potter wand for Christmas because they said I’d worn this one out.

Did it work?

No...well, you know maybe it has, when I look at that gap, with what we have done over this period...I don’t really think that now, the wand has done it but they’ve been the centerpiece for a lot of our discussions.

What did you do before you were a politician?

I spent 40 years as a teacher. I had elementary school, 5th and 6th grade. Then I was a principal.

Is running a budget negotiation anything like running your classes?

You know, sometimes I’ll come in from there, and I’ll say, “Golly, hey, I thought I retired from this!”

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