Illustration by Ryan Alexander-Tanner

THE INFLUENTIAL Portland Business Alliance (PBA) has tried to thump a couple of points in its push to clarify the legal landscape that led a judge to kill the city's sit-lie ordinance back in 2009.

This isn't necessarily about a return to the bad old days of cops and security guards having the right to bother law-abiding people just for resting on a sidewalk. The PBA just wants to talk things over.

"It's Portland. It's going to be a conversation," spokeswoman Megan Doern told me last month.

That's partly true. The PBA really does want a conversation. That's why it's pushing HB 2963, a bill that would essentially exempt local sidewalk rules from Oregon's constitutional limits on free speech. But it's become increasingly obvious that the PBA would much rather have that conversation in Salem, with lawmakers who might buy their hoary lines about downtown filth, and not in Portland, where advocates know better.

For now, the Oregon Legislature appears to be holding its tongue.

A hearing in the House Judiciary Committee on Tuesday, April 2, ended without a vote to move along the PBA's bill—and with some expressed skepticism that the legislature might be the wrong place for the PBA to start.

Not that the lobbying group didn't try its hardest to convince everyone otherwise.

First up was Charlie Hinkle, a lawyer at powerful Portland firm Stoel Rives (and whose name, ironically, graces an annual award bestowed by the American Civil Liberties Union of Oregon). Hinkle tried to argue that the issue was about local control and not about free speech or profiling people who live on the streets.

But he made his point in most a curious way.

"A dog knows the difference between being kicked and being tripped over," he told lawmakers. "It's easy to tell 99 percent of the time whether someone's sitting on the sidewalk because they want to sit on the sidewalk or they're doing it for an expressive purpose."

Then came Lynnae Berg, the PBA's downtown boss. The former assistant police chief started off using phrases like "creative solution" and "community discussion." But she finished with fear and punishment.

"Longtime downtown firms are struggling to stay because their employees do not feel safe," she claimed.

It was up to advocates to help deflate some of that rhetoric.

Becky Straus of the ACLU of Oregon submitted a letter from groups like Street Roots and Sisters of the Road reminding everyone that the city's current sidewalk rules—which allow a free speech zone along the curb lines of most streets—impose no limits on friendly discussions.

"One party has come here for a fix," she testified. "We'd be happy to return to that table to have those discussions."

Earlier, Monica Goracke of the Oregon Law Center had made the same point: "There's no coalition here. There's no agreement."

And she sharply cut to the real issues in play: (1) the reality that sit-lie-style laws overwhelmingly target the homeless, many of whom are experiencing mental illness, and (2) that we really ought to fight, instead, for better funding for housing and public health.

"You can't make it illegal to experience a mental health crisis," Goracke said.

If the PBA really wants a "conversation," that's a much, much better place to start.