Our Opinion: Betsy Johnson will center Legislature
EDITOR'S NOTE: On Monday, Nov. 19, Senate President Peter Courtney took our advice and appointed state Sens. Betsy Johnson and Elizabeth Steiner Hayward as co-chairs of the Joint Committee on Ways and Means.
Throughout Oregon, Democrats are in power. Gov. Kate Brown has won her (likely final) election and has four more years to establish her legacy. Both the Senate and House have Democratic supermajorities, meaning they can pass money-raising measures without Republican support.
On the Senate side, we now know that Peter Courtney returns as president, and we know who his leaders, assistant leaders and whips will be.
What we don't know is who will co-chair Ways & Means.
The best answer the Senate can come up with is Sen. Betsy Johnson of Scappoose, whose sprawling 16th Senate district includes Clatsop and Columbia counties in addition to parts of Tillamook and Washington counties.
For those who don't follow the workings of government, Ways & Means is the committee that writes the state budget every two years. It includes members of the House and Senate. It has two co-chairs, one from each body.
Former Sen. Richard Devlin of Tualatin was the Senate's co-chair for ages, and he did a great job. He was known as a wonk's wonk who understood the minutiae of state funding down to the penny.
Courtney appointed himself as temporary co-chair for the short session of 2018. Essentially, he was a placeholder.
Oregon has always functioned best when there is a loyal opposition. The Republicans are in disarray in the state. They control neither chamber nor the governorship.
Right now, Courtney, Brown and Speaker of the House Tina Kotek need someone who can say two things:
And "Oh, hell no."
And that's Johnson.
She has seniority on Ways & Means (she's been there since 2005, her freshman year). She's held the titles of co-vice chair of Ways & Means, co-chair of the Ways & Means Transportation Subcommittee, and co-chair of the Legislative Audits Committee.
Moreover, she's not a Portlander. Courtney's from Salem, but all other current leadership in the Senate — Sens. Laurie Monnes Anderson, Elizabeth Steiner Hayward, Mark Hass, Rob Wagner, Michael Dembrow and Chuck Riley — are from the metro area. (Steiner Hayward, Hass, Wagner and Riley all represent portions of Washington County.)
Johnson, who was born in Bend, is rural (her district includes Banks and Gaston). Johnson is coastal (her district includes Seaside, Astoria and Tillamook). Johnson is timber (Vernonia and the Tillamook State Forest).
These are all factors that none of the other leadership can claim.
The Senate Democratic caucus also is quite liberal, and our newspaper supports much of their agenda — especially in areas such as education and the environment. However, the state economists are predicting that the next recession could hit by 2020.
There will be a tendency in the Senate leadership to spend money and raise money. Probably for education. Probably for human services. Probably for the environment.
But as we head into the long session of 2019, Ways & Means needs someone on the Senate side who's not a rubber stamp.
Over the years, she has balked at supporting measures deemed top priorities by her fellow Democrats. Her dad was a respected Republican state lawmaker, and Johnson often plays to the conservative stretches of her district, sometimes giving Senate Democrats ulcers.
It will be tempting for Brown and the Democrats to overreach now that they have the supermajorities and don't need their Republican colleagues' help to raise taxes. On a case-by-case basis, this paper might support those efforts — say, on the yearlong effort by the Joint Interim Committee on Student Success to address the shortcomings of our public education system.
But with the storm clouds of recession looming, we could imagine Brown and the Democrats saying "yes" to every money-raising endeavor they can conceive. We also can imagine the Democrats giving short shrift to economic development, bolstering the state's economy to better withstand the next downturn.
Johnson can be pugnacious, prideful and profane. She's known to ignore her own party's leadership. And like St. Paul, she does not suffer fools gladly.
For 2019-20, Johnson could be the stern voice of reason that keeps Icarian Democrats from flying too close to the sun.
Peter Courtney: Give Johnson the gavel.