State Sen. Betsy Johnson, D-Scappoose, will be co-chair of the Legislature's budget-writing committee that sets spending by state agencies. (File/Portland Tribune)

State Sen. Betsy Johnson, a coastal legislator 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 this week announced that he was appointing Johnson co-chair of the Joint Ways and Means Committee. She will share the Senate’s leadership of the committee 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 from 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.

Johnson represents the coastal cities of Astoria, Seaside and Tillamook and a sliver of Washington County, including Banks and Gaston. Her district also includes Vernonia and the Tillamook State Forest.

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,” Hass said.

She has served as a vice chair 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.

 Steiner Hayward, a family physician, said she is excited to work with Johnson. She said their differing backgrounds and Senate districts will be complementary and good for the state overall.

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. Their backgrounds are perfectly complementary,” Courtney said.

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.”

Paris Achen: [email protected] or 503-363-0888. Achen is a reporter for the Portland Tribune working for the Oregon Capital Bureau, a collaboration of EO Media Group, Pamplin Media Group and Salem Reporter.