Playing God with time 

Those opposing daylight saving time kept a sunny mood during a recent legislative committee hearing as they sought to advance a bill that would make summer nights darker. Sponsor Ryan Osmundson, R-Buffalo, called it a "sunshine bill with an implied sunset." Nicole Rolf, representing the Montana Farm Bureau Federation, ended her testimony by passing around a "meme" comparing coffee cups sizes before and after clock hour hands move forward each March (the "after" panel showed a bucket).

"Thank you for your time," she concluded, "pun intended."

And there was George Harris, testifying as a citizen. He first offered a practical argument in favor of standard time, which would shift an hour of sunlight back to the morning for eight months of the year, on the basis that it would be safer for early-morning runners like himself and schoolchildren waiting for the bus. Then he turned metaphysical, comparing daylight saving time to playing God.

"God knew what he was doing when he set the time, and I don't think we know more than him," Harris said.

Debating daylight saving is a tradition as reliable as the clock-setting ritual itself. Nonetheless, those debates have typically gone nowhere in the Montana Legislature. But last month, Osmundson's bill, Senate Bill 206, sailed through the senate unanimously out of committee and then by a 36-14 floor vote.

As if jolted awake by an early alarm, defenders of daylight saving time packed the House State Administration committee room on March 13 to persuade lawmakers that becoming the third state to abandon the time shift would be no joking matter. They called it a bill with trivial benefits but that would hurt everything from after-school sports to summer tourism to the Spring Creek Mine, where hundreds of miners drive across state lines each day for work.

Adam Clinch, a Helena math teacher, noted that under Standard Time, nautical twilight would begin at 3:01 a.m. on the summer solstice. "Besides a handful of marathon runners, I don't know why we Montanans need daylight at three in the morning," he said.

Absent from the debate was discussion of daylight saving's original intent when it was introduced during World War I: to conserve energy. Research on the question is scant and mixed, though a U.S. Department of Energy report estimated that the three-week extension of daylight saving time in 2007 saved half a percent of daily energy consumption. Northwestern Energy hasn't testified on the Montana bill, and spokesperson Butch Larcombe says the company has not studied whether it might lead to more energy use or profits here.

Osmundson, who represents a rural district of farmers and ranchers, said his constituents were on his mind when he introduced the bill. "Their schedules," he said, "are more dictated by the sun than the clock." He then complained of daylight saving as a federal diktat, arguing that setting Montanans' schedule "should be up to us."

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