Illustration by Ryan Alexander-Tanner

THE CITY BUDGET—probably out of necessity, given that the city's facing a $21.5 million deficit—has dominated much of the gossip, intrigue, rhetoric, and attention in Portland City Hall so far this year. And that's been especially true in the mayor's office.

Mayor Charlie Hales has started lamenting to anyone listening that it literally consumes his day, springing to mind the moment his eyes open and gnawing on his brain until they shut at the end of the night

As the clocked ticked closer to Hales' budget unveiling on Tuesday, April 30, his staff spent every last minute agonizing over numbers. It was so fluid, even city commissioners had to wait for the morning of the announcement to get a good briefing on what it contained.

All of which explains Hales' lackluster State of the City speech last Friday, April 26. The very formal affair traditionally marks the mayor's best chance of the year to present an agenda and maybe make a little bit of news. But with Hales' speech coming so close to his budget presser, that wasn't possible. Hales had to pull his best punches.

Instead, the crowd at City Club of Portland was mostly treated to a well-crafted campaign-style speech, complete with the mayor's most cherished prop—his tool belt—and an elaborate parable about how he once built a house out of stone with his father.

Hales finally got around to dropping a few crumbs about post-budget plans, but only at the very end of his remarks—a coda that ought to have been some kind of buildup to a crescendo.

So what did we learn?

• The mayor is listening closely to the Portland Business Alliance (PBA) and its beefs over the city's sidewalks. Hales used the unfortunate word "epidemic" to link two separate-but-related concepts: "homelessness" and "panhandling." He's not outwardly supporting a bill that would lift away state limits currently keeping the city from resurrecting "sit-lie" laws. But he is in favor of wresting local control from the state and has echoed the PBA's call for "civility" on the sidewalks.

Hales told me after his speech that the city needs "reasonable authority" over its sidewalks and that he'll "put attention" into the issue after the budget.

"And not just the enforcement side," he says. "But the social services side."

(This was much more worrisome until he backed that statement up with his budget plan—actually funding safety net programs otherwise targeted for deep cuts.)

• He's carefully minding his rhetoric on the Columbia River Crossing. Hales wouldn't venture any thoughts on the Interstate 5 replacement bridge and highway project until someone asked him about West Hayden Island. He said paving the island for the Port of Portland will have to wait until the CRC is decided. And really, Hales says, he just wants an answer one way or the other, hopefully by the end of the month.

"I just want it to stop lurking," he says.

Kind of like we all feel about the budget.