DESPITE ITS STRONG political blessing in the Oregon House in April, the Portland Business Alliance's (PBA) juggernaut bid for tighter sidewalk rules ran into trouble almost as soon as it hit the Senate.
The Senate Judiciary Committee, unlike its eager counterpart in the House, expressed remarkable skepticism over the PBA's specially written bill, HB 2963, which would lift state preemptions on local sidewalk laws.
Senators heard from advocates who warned the bill would let cops target the poor and homeless, even as it failed to address the problem the PBA was worried about: aggressive panhandling. They also saw a statewide bill that mainly addressed a Portland challenge.
By late last month, a trickle of likely "no" votes had emerged. And with time running out in a legislative session with bigger fights to come—over pensions and school funding, among others—Judiciary Chairman Floyd Prozanski quietly pulled the plug.
"We didn't have the votes to move the bill forward," Prozanski, D-Eugene, told the Mercury on May 30. “I've agreed to do a work group in the interim to hash this thing out."
It's a striking rebuke for the downtown Portland lobbying group, which made the bill one of its most visible efforts this legislative session and hoped to have it on the table once Mayor Charlie Hales delivered on his promise to take on sidewalk issues this summer. The PBA had united frustrated businesses and sympathetic social-services providers in a coalition that complained especially about "street kids," a cohort many would call the least sympathetic on Portland's sidewalks.
A spokeswoman for the PBA didn't return a message seeking comment.
But the turnabout marked an even bigger victory for advocates who said an honest discussion about improving Portland's sidewalks doesn't need to wait for a sit-lie green light.
Groups like the ACLU of Oregon, the Oregon Law Center, and Street Roots pointed out that Portland's past dalliance with sit-lie rules overwhelmingly targeted the homeless and poor. Advocates also suggested police officers could do more with current laws against violent behavior—even though cops historically like sit-lie laws because they're much easier to enforce.
"Advocates on the ground were able to convey their message in a way that Salem noticed," says Street Roots Director Israel Bayer. "But it's unclear to us what the next steps are. We hope that whatever the future brings, it's thoughtful and comprehensive and looks at a range of issues, not just moving people experiencing homelessness or poverty from block to block."
Silence from Portland City Hall, relatively speaking, also helped doom the bill.
Hales, in his State of the City speech in April, promised to focus on panhandling and echoed the PBA by using words like "civility." But Hales decided against placing HB 2963 on the city's legislative lobbying agenda, meaning lobbyists spent their time pushing other issues, like gun control and education funding.
Sources say senators paid attention to that lack of direct support. They also noted that City Commissioner Amanda Fritz sent a "private" letter to Senator Richard Devlin, D-Tualatin, expressing dismay for the bill.
The makeup of the legislature's two judiciary committees even played a part in the bill's fate. In the House, the judiciary committee is led by a former Portland cop, Jeff Barker, D-Aloha. His panel, more rural and suburban, didn't push as hard and passed the bill unanimously—a signal to the House rank-and-file that maybe the bill wasn't so controversial.
But Prozanski leads the Senate panel. And Prozanski hails from Eugene—where homelessness policy is famously tolerant. Committee members also noticed that two House Democrats voted against the bill, Michael Dembrow and Sara Gelser, and had raised concerns about bias.
And as the Senate poked into the bill's downsides, no one was willing to champion it at a time when other bills were taking priority.
"You didn't have advocates," says Becky Straus, ACLU legislative director. "If anything, you were going to get people to stand up against it."
That was the message the PBA heard when it met with Senate Majority Leader Diane Rosenbaum, D-Portland, before Prozanski killed HB 2963. Several senators didn't respond to requests for comment. But the office of Chip Shields, D-Portland, says he was going to vote no. Jackie Dingfelder, D-Portland, also loomed as a no vote.
As of press time, Prozanski's comments about a working group remained unclear. It's possible Prozanski will work to convene advocates and businesses to talk about the bill's flaws.
Hales, at a news conference on Tuesday, June 4, said he'd be open to starting discussions. His office saw the bill as one potential tool alongside something advocates have been clamoring for: increased services.
"I have a vision of what ought to be," he said. "We ought to share the streets in a civil and humane way. And we ought to get services to people who need them."
—The Mercury's Virginia Alvino contributed to this report.