Illustration by Jess Smart Smiley

THE WAY OUT of the political dead-end facing Mayor Charlie Hales and Commissioner Steve Novick had been sitting in the back pocket of a Hales staffer for months.

Their hope was that it would never see the light of day.

But by Wednesday, January 7—after it became painfully clear their proposal to raise millions in new transportation revenue wouldn't get the three votes it needed to pass Portland City Council—Hales found himself laying it on the table.

Instead of muscling through a set of residential and business fees meant to raise more than $40 million a year, Hales would hit the pause button ahead of a planned vote January 14. The business fee would be debugged. And the residential piece—which had lived alternately as a flat fee and an income tax before re-emerging last month as an income-graded gas fee—would be scrapped altogether.

In the meantime, Hales wants the council to ask voters what they'd prefer instead. His vision? A package of unprecedented advisory resolutions—each one spotlighting one revenue mechanism—would be rushed onto the ballot this May. And if Hales and Novick have their way, their colleagues will join them later this year in enacting whichever resolution wins the most votes.

"We've been having this discussion in the City of Portland for 14 years," Hales said during a January 8 hearing where his plan was first publicly aired. "We've not been totally unaware of this problem. We have been unwilling to face it squarely."

But as gambits go, Hales' maneuver has only been a partial success.

Pulling back in favor of a non-binding vote seemed, at first, like an elegant way to live and fight another day. But a triumph in that fight is no more assured now than before Hales announced his backup plan.

Almost immediately, two commissioners, Nick Fish and Amanda Fritz, declared they wouldn't be bound by whichever mechanism comes out on top. That means Hales and Novick will still need to build a coalition behind their leading choice. Fritz says she also wants whatever option prevails to go back before voters all by its lonesome.

"I'm not convinced that an advisory referendum is helpful," Fritz told the Mercury last week, repeating her preference for a progressive income tax (shared by Novick, personally). "I'm not going to support a regressive option."

And then there's the calendar.

To meet Multnomah County's deadline for assembling the May ballot, the city would need to present final ballot titles by March 19. To hit that mark, says the city's elections officer, Deborah Scroggin, the council would likely need to approve its preferred ballot language by January 22.

All that preliminary language, given the controversy over the issue, will inevitably wind up challenged in court. Scroggin has guessed it could take up to two months for those complaints to be hashed out by a Multnomah County judge, who might decide to leave the city's language unchanged or tweak it dramatically. Hales says the election could cost as much as $300,000.

To hold a vote by January 22, Hales and Novick will need to have their wish list whittled down as soon as this Thursday, January 15. That's the deadline to place items on the following week's city council agenda, which would be posted publicly Friday, January 16.

If the council voted just one week later, on January 29?

"That would make it difficult to get through the challenge process with enough time," Scroggin says.

As of press time, Novick told the Mercury he and Hales were still planning a special January 20 council hearing to discuss the shape of the ballot. Novick said four options remain on the table: a property tax, some kind of residential fee, a gas tax, and an income tax. There's also talk that a blend of options could make the ballot.

But several wrinkles loom, he warns.

He and Hales are asking business groups like the Portland Business Alliance (PBA) if they'd balk at a gas or property tax—on grounds that either tax might be seen as "double-taxation" in light of the already-proposed business fee. If that's the case, Novick says, he and Hales might consider scrapping the business fee, too, and asking voters if they'd support raising the $40-plus million in new revenue solely through a property or gas tax hike.

Novick also says the PBA has suggested a residential fee that exempts anyone collecting food stamps. But that, he says, would also exempt people collecting government pensions. That pass for pensioners has been a flashpoint for critics like the Oregonian's editorial board.

There's a chance, Novick allows, that May might be too soon.

"Time's a-wasting," he says. "We're targeting getting it done in May, which is the reason we want people to know which issues we're working through, to give them a chance to weigh in on which ones should be on the ballot."

Hales' office didn't return a message seeking comment.

Novick, meanwhile, says he'll wait until the city's budget process kicks off next month to ask his colleagues to invest a larger percentage of the city's operating budget in transportation, money that would come at the expense of other council priorities like homelessness, police, restoring firefighters, or the arts.

"Whatever option comes out of the vote process," says Novick, "some people's willingness to accept it will depend in part on what we're doing to put more 'skin in the game.'"