It's really more a safety statute than a nuisance statute because it’s for everyone's safety. —Rep. Jim Nielson, R-Bountiful
SALT LAKE CITY — Standing on the corner of a busy underpass at 1300 South on Tuesday, Mark McGregor flashes a grin and a cardboard sign at passing drivers asking for help.
McGregor says he's homeless, out of work and trying to come up with enough money to travel to Texas next month for his daughter's wedding.
While he knows panhandling doesn't endear him to many people, McGregor observes a personal protocol. He stays on the sidewalk.
"I don't approach anyone unless they wave to me," he said.
When asked about a bill before the Utah Legislature that would prohibit "aggressive panhandling" and blocking traffic, McGregor shrugged.
"We don't have enough crime going on? We have to hurt homeless people? We don't hurt anyone. These people want to help us," he said as a driver pulled up to hand him a dollar bill.
HB101 is the state's latest attempt to rein in aggressive panhandling and other conduct that impedes traffic within certain roadways. It also would prohibit people from soliciting money or goods on sidewalks within 10 feet of the entrance of a bank or ATM.
State lawmakers passed a law in 2010 that prohibited people from sitting, standing or loitering near a roadway to solicit a ride, contribution or employment. Three homeless people challenged the constitutionality of the law and it was struck down by a federal judge for being overly broad.
Rep. Jim Nielson, R-Bountiful, said HB101 takes a different approach because it is primarily a traffic safety bill. The House Transportation Committee is scheduled to conduct a hearing on the bill at 8 a.m. Wednesday in Room 450 of the Capitol.
"It's really more a safety statute than a nuisance statute because it’s for everyone's safety," Nielson said.
The proposal would prohibit conduct that impedes or blocks traffic within the interstate system, on state highways, on- and off-ramps and medians.
"It’s fine for people to be on the sidewalk. Anything other than that is really not designed for people. If you’re in that area, you could be subject to physical harm or you could end up contributing to an accident," Nielson said.
Stewart Gollan of the Utah Legal Clinic, which challenged the constitutionality of the 2010 state law on behalf of Terry Lee Wilkinson, Patty Eagle and Jackie Sanchez, who were homeless, said HB101 strikes the language declared unconstitutional by U.S. District Court Judge Ted Stewart. The plaintiffs claimed the 2010 law violated their right to free speech.
The judge's ruling said although the state has a legitimate interest in promoting safety, "it may do so as long as the legislation is written so as to avoid infringing on constitutionally protected rights."
HB101 puts the state on "less troubling ground on its face, but it certainly leaves open a great deal of potentially constitutionally problematic enforcement as applied," Gollan said.
The bill says counties or municipalities may adopt resolutions, ordinances or regulations for conduct that impedes or blocks traffic for roads under their jurisdiction.
"They're certainly opening the door for municipalities to create local ordinances that may well run afoul of constitutional protections. In my experience, many municipalities would very much like to prohibit panhandling period," Gollan said.
Nielson said he believes the bill addresses the constitutional concerns raised in the federal court ruling "but still provides protections against the things that put both pedestrian and drivers at risk."
Nielson said he was approached by the Downtown Alliance, which has been part of a campaign to encourage contributions to nonprofit organizations that provide direct service to people who are homeless rather than give to individuals.
Jason Mathis, executive director of the alliance, said panhandling is not an issue exclusive to downtown Salt Lake City.
"It is really a regional issue. (Nielson's) statewide approach affects people across the board. I'm glad he's doing it," Mathis said.
While some cities have passed ordinances to address the issue, "it just pushes the problem someplace else. It's really important to deal with it on a regional basis and to understand the root causes of homelessness," he said.
To that end, the Downtown Alliance is backing a legislative proposal that would extend a tax credit to employers who hire homeless people and pay them a living wage.
Another man panhandling at the 1300 South off-ramp said he works construction and panhandles in the winter months out of economic necessity.
"I'm much rather be working than doing this," said Gerald, who would not offer his last name.
"Just because I'm homeless doesn't mean the bills stop coming."