Portland needs a "small business impact statement"
The Portland City Council has noticed that small businesses are having a hard time with all the red tape and other hassles they have to deal with at City Hall. Lately the council's taken a few steps here and there to make life easier for the little entrepreneurs that give their passions and ambitions a shot in the Rose City. And it's a smart move -- small business plays a big part in making Portland Portland.
But the saga of Fireman Randy's new spray paint lockup ordinance -- did it pass yesterday? -- shows that the city still has quite a way to go to become truly small-business-friendly. The idea of requiring hardware stores and other retailers to keep all spray paint locked up, and to get and record identification from everyone who buys it, is supposed to reduce graffiti in the city. But the merchants, particularly the smaller ones, have howled, saying that the burden on them outweighs any likely public benefit.
I'm an enemy of graffiti taggers -- they're all mentally ill, in my view -- and so I tend to sympathize with any effort to combat that particular form of vandalism. But I can also understand the hardware stores' concerns. Look at it from their perspective. They'll have to make some fairly significant physical renovations of their stores to get the paint locked up, and all the ID checking and other folderol that will now come with selling a can of paint is going to eat up employees' time and attention. While they're busy jotting down information from some grandmother's driver's license so that she can pick up a can of Rustoleum for that garage sale patio table, some kid in the back of the store is going to be stealing the place blind. So what are the shopkeepers supposed to do, hire more help just for the spray paint rigamarole?
In this case, it would have been quite helpful for the council (and the public) to have a decent estimate of just how much, in hard dollars, the hardware store folks are going to have to spend to come into compliance with the proposed new rules. And as best I can tell from where I'm sitting, that data was never compiled; at least, it was never publicized. Could it be that city had no solid estimate of the costs of the program -- much less any ascertainable estimate of the reduction in tagging that the ordinance is supposed to bring about?
I think the city should have to compute and publicize the private costs of laws like these before the vote on them is taken. The same for actions taken by city bureaus, for that matter. And there's a perfectly good model for requiring the municipal government to do that. It's a longstanding federal law regarding the environment. Before any "major federal action" is taken that might have a deleterious effect on the environment, the agency that's about to do the hacking has to prepare an "environmental impact statement," in which it is required to predict just how much damage to Mother Nature the proposed program is going to inflict.
There ought to be a similar law in place on behalf of small business in the City of Portland. Before the city plows ahead with something like the spray paint lockup ordinance, it should have to prepare and publish a "small business impact statement," showing how much the proposed law is going to cost small businesses in town. Defining what a "small business" is isn't that difficult, and figuring out what a "major city action" affecting such businesses might be is another manageable task. If the city fathers are really serious about nurturing entrepreneurs, the least they could do is quantify the hurt they're about to put on the little guys and gals when they pound the gavel on their latest groovy idea.