'Tough' Betsy Johnson adds rural balance to state budget process
State Sen. Betsy Johnson, known for tough questioning of state bureaucrats, is getting a more powerful perch to watch over state spending.
In what one legislator termed a genius move, Senate President Peter Courtney on Monday, Nov. 19, appointed Johnson co-chair of the Legislature's budget-writing Joint Ways and Means Committee.
Johnson represents Senate Dist. 16, a large district that includes rural Forest Grove, Gaston, Banks and rural Hillsboro and North Plains, as well as Astoria, Seaside, Tillamook, Scapoose, Vernonia and the Tillamook State Forest.
Johnson will share the Senate's committee leadership with state Sen. Elizabeth Steiner Hayward, D-Beaverton. The House co-chair will be state Rep. Dan Rayfield, D-Corvallis.
The committee, including both senators and representatives, evaluates and then recommends budgets for state agencies.
"I do my absolute damndest to represent Senate District 16, and I am honored that the people have confidence in me to manage the state budget on their behalf," said Johnson, a Democrat, who lives in Scappoose.
"I'm thinking of it is an opportunity … for a more balanced approach between urban and rural Oregon, and I can't think of better persons to work their way through the difficult issues facing us in the upcoming session," said state Sen. Cliff Bentz, R-Ontario.
'Better be prepared'
Johnson comes from a civically active family. Her father, Sam Johnson, served in the House — as a Republican — representing Central Oregon. Her mother, Becky Johnson, served on the state Board of Higher Education and the board overseeing teachers.
Johnson is a commercial pilot who founded and then sold a helicopter company. She was elected to the Oregon House in 2000 and served from the start on the Ways and Means Committee, an unusual appointment for a freshman lawmaker. She was appointed to the Senate in 2005.
She has been a staunch watchdog of state agency spending, said state Sen. Mark Hass, D-Beaverton. "If there is anybody you want guarding the taxpayers' purse, it's Betsy Johnson," he said.
She has served as a vice chairwoman of the budget committee and was the Senate's leader on two of its six subcommittees. The subcommittees conduct sometimes lengthy hearings to go over agency spending proposals.
"She can be tough, grouchy, and when people go before her on the Ways and Means subcommittees, they had better be prepared. Pity those who aren't," Hass said.
That's what taxpayers should want in a Ways and Means leader, he added.
A rural advocate?
Steiner Hayward, a family physician, represents District 17, a largely Beaverton district which includes the Tanasbourne and Rock Creek areas. She said she is excited to work with Johnson and said their differing backgrounds and Senate districts will be complementary and good for the state. Johnson has a strong background in business, technology and transportation, while Steiner Hayward's experience has center on health and human services.
That was what Courtney had in mind.
"I think that's the best way to put together a remarkable budget for Oregon in a very difficult time that reflects all of Oregon," Courtney said. "Their backgrounds are perfectly complementary."
The pair plans to meet together with state officials, advocates and others making budget requests. Such meetings will allow the two legislators to hear the same information at the same time, "feed off each other's questions and get the most robust understanding of serious budget requests," Steiner Hayward said.
The Senate president's decision to appoint the women as chairs was ingenious, she said.
"I see this as an opportunity to try to decrease the rural-urban divide when it comes to budgeting issues," Steiner Hayward said. "She grew up in Central Oregon and now lives in Scappoose and represents rural places in Northwest Oregon and coastal areas. Having that perspective will be really helpful and make sure that we are as even handed and helpful to rural Oregon."