Clockwork Blues

It can be a nuisance changing every clock in your house twice a year. But Daylight Savings Time is not a subject of public controversy-- except in Indiana.
April 2005
Alan Ehrenhalt
By Alan Ehrenhalt  |  Senior Editor

This was supposed to be the year that Indiana finally decided what time it was.

Other states don't have this problem--at least not to the extent of making it into a consuming political issue. Time zone boundaries run right through the middle of Kentucky and Tennessee, for example, without generating any noticeable political controversy. Every spring, people all over the country move their clocks forward an hour, and every fall they move them back. It can be a nuisance changing every setting in your house twice a year, but it's not a subject of public controversy.

Except in Indiana. Voters and politicians there have been arguing passionately about their clocks for more than a hundred years, and they have shown little interest in putting the subject aside. In Indiana, as one state legislator put it recently, "it isn't a matter of Republicans versus Democrats. It's an absolute turf war."

What's the big deal? That's not an easy question to answer. It's true that Indiana is split between Eastern and Central Time, but 10 other states are divided into more than one time zone, and they don't seem especially upset about it. Indiana also is one of only three states that choose not to observe Daylight Saving Time, but the other two-- Arizona and Hawaii--made that decision a long time ago and haven't spent a lot of effort arguing about it since.

Indiana, however, is the one state where significant elements of the political class have long been convinced that clock-setting decisions exert a major impact on the condition of the economy. For decades, business and labor have argued in unison that the state's failure to move its clocks for Daylight Saving Time confuses corporate site selectors and discourages them from locating in the state.

What makes them so sure that this is such a serious problem is a bit of a puzzle in itself. By sticking to Standard Time all year, while the rest of the country is switching back and forth, Indiana does find itself in a bit of an unusual position. It lines up chronologically with Chicago in the summertime and with New York in the wintertime. But it's hard to see why businesses couldn't get used to this, just as they get used to the myriad time zone changes that are simply considered part of life in a geographically big country.

Some commentators, in fact, think the whole proposition that Daylight Saving Time is a jobs issue makes no sense at all. "There's absolutely no hard evidence," says Jack Colwell, longtime political columnist for the South Bend Tribune. "It would be hard to prove that even one job would be created by Daylight Saving Time."

Still, in virtually every legislative session during the past decade, there has been a lobbying effort in Indianapolis directed specifically at resetting the state's clocks in accordance with Daylight Saving Time. For much of that time, the effort came under the formal aegis of an organization known as the "Hoosier Daylight Coalition." Some of the members of this coalition came from businesses that sought tangible benefits from extended summer daylight, such as golf course operators and manufacturers of barbecue equipment. But much of the impetus from the daylight lobby was supplied by broader corporate interests that sincerely believed Indiana was losing overall economic momentum by not enlisting as a daylight saving state.

Despite the lobby's best efforts, time reform languished in the legislature for years. In 2003, the Hoosier Daylight Coalition was officially disbanded. But then, last fall, came the election of Republican Governor Mitch Daniels, a pillar of the Indiana business establishment--he used to be a top executive with Eli Lilly Corp.--and a true believer in Daylight Saving Time. In case they needed any further persuasion, Daniels and his Republican advisers were lobbied aggressively by the major Indianapolis television stations, which argued that an early-setting sun was forcing them to charge lower rates for commercial advertising than they would otherwise be able to command.

The day after his election, Daniels promised that bringing daylight time to the state would be at the top of his legislative agenda for 2005. "This is not simply a matter of preference, of convenience," Daniels declared. "Many of our neighbors would have a job, or a better job, if we made this change." Daniels called DST "a part of economic recovery for Indiana."

The political numbers clearly seemed to be on Daniels' side. Not only had Republicans won the governorship for the first time in 16 years, they also controlled both chambers of the legislature after a long period of split majorities. Patrick Bauer, the South Bend Democrat who had helped to block daylight-saving bills for years as House speaker, was finally being relegated to the minority. When hearings were held earlier this spring, dozens of witnesses testified in favor of the change, and only seven against it--mostly theater owners who complained that it was hard to sell tickets in the sunshine. The general assumption was that the daylight bill would pass both chambers comfortably.

That wasn't the way it worked out. Legislators from rural areas continued to cite the most familiar argument used against DST in earlier decades: that it would force schoolchildren to wait for buses on dangerous highways in the darker pre-dawn hours. Others pointed to the results of a survey by Indianapolis Star in which only one in 10 businesses interviewed claimed to see a connection between daylight time and employment levels in Indiana.

When the time came for a floor vote on the legislation in late February, its manager abruptly delayed consideration, admitting that he wasn't sure he had the votes. The following week, the bill fell victim to much broader partisan warfare, as Democrats boycotted the House chamber to deny the Republicans a quorum and prevent passage of much of Daniels' overall legislative program for the year. How central DST was in generating the mass protest is hard to gauge. Whatever the motivations might have been, the reform was buried. Unless Daniels and the Republican leadership can stage an unlikely resurrection before the legislature goes home at the end of April, those who believe that daylight time is key to economic revival in Indiana will have to wait at least another year.

Part of Indiana's problem isn't politics: It's the inevitable consequence of simple geography. If you put the whole state on permanent Eastern Time, the sun would rise at an inconveniently late hour for part of the year, and children would indeed have to wait for schoolbuses in the dark. If you put it on year-round Central Time, the sun would set unpleasantly early in the fall and early winter: a little after four o'clock in some areas.

In some ways, the original decision to reject daylight time (except for a few counties in a couple of corners of the state) seems like an ingenious solution to the problem. During the winter, most of Indiana lines up with New York and Boston. But by refusing to set their clocks ahead with the rest of the East in April, it essentially spends the spring, summer and early fall on Central Time, keeping farmers and schoolbus drivers happy. You might call it the best of both worlds.

Unfortunately, it is confusing, especially to outsiders confronting the system for the first time. A couple of years ago, the TV series West Wing ran an episode in which three White House aides missed the presidential motorcade because they forgot that Indiana doesn't observe DST and were an hour late. Most Americans have long been used to the fact that a state can be in more than one time zone, but they seem to have trouble accepting that a state would want to switch time zones in the middle of the year.

Still, when powerful people argue this heatedly over what would seem to be an issue of only modest importance, one has to suspect that something larger is involved. In this case, I wonder if Indiana isn't really having an argument about where in the country it actually belongs. An element of the state's business elite has always wanted to line up chronometrically and politically with the corporate establishment in New York, the better to plug into global alliances and trade opportunities. And an equally vociferous Hoosier element has always been suspicious of those goals, believing that the state's homespun Midwestern roots are the most attractive and important part of its self-image. Somehow, the issue of time has become intertwined with that rivalry in a way that has not been true anywhere else in the country.

One state legislator, Democratic Representative Chet Dobis, expressed the argument succinctly in a debate this spring. Who wants daylight time? Dobis asked rhetorically. "It's all the folks from high tech, all the folks from the media, all the folks who think there's a benefit to being associated with New York City, when in fact we're hundreds of miles closer to Chicago."