Citizen Legislators – How To Regain The Magic Of Doing Something



Filed under: In the News, Random Awesomeness, Soapbox

I’ve spent a lot of time with legislators over the years, way more than you’d expect for someone who’s not a lobbyist or a glutton for punishment.

At the start, it was because I was a reporter, so it was part of the job description. If you aren’t a good enough writer to cover the arts, and you don’t have stomach for covering crime, they send you to cover the state legislature.

I made a few good friends while there, and still get drinks with a few now former legislators, where we invariably talk about the sorry state of journalism. And the state legislatures.

Damn kids, get off the statehouse lawn!

The one thing I think that people don’t understand about legislators in general is that they really do have an interest in making the world a better place. They are just corny/idealistic/naive enough to think that if we have a citizen legislature, that they are citizens and by-golly they should do their part.

It’s not really ever that simple, of course. But as the old saying goes, the only ones crazy enough to think they can change the world are the ones that actually do.

I suspect that nobody tells the person who wants to change the world that the daily activities of a citizen legislator involve a lot of time listening to lobbyists from the utilities talk about rights-of-way.

And so slowly, the spirit of legislators gets ground down.

Daylight Saving Time Legislation

Legislators spirits can get beaten down, so they feel like they are walking around in the fog.

The future, it turns out, has no lobbyist. Legislators don’t get to hear from people with exciting visions of how the world could be a better place. If they do, those people always have hat in hand, and describe how the world would be better if only they get some funding.

Still, fellow citizens have lots of good ideas, and aren’t afraid to share them. That’s awesome, and it’s at the heart of why we have a citizen legislature

Now we live in a very complicated world, and a state legislature controls only a small part of that world. When citizens come up and tell a legislator that they should really do something about, say, hydrogenated fats, or school absenteeism, or whatever, well, the citizen legislators have to learn quickly how to let people down easily, letting them know that they’ll “keep their concerns in mind” or whatever. It’s not fun.

But every once in awhile, a citizen legislator gets an idea from a fellow citizen, and a lightbulb goes off.

“That’s something I could actually fix!” they think. That moment comes very rarely, so it’s delicious when it does come.

Yummy.

They enjoy it for a while, until they learn why it is that they are, in fact, powerless to fix something that seems so fixable.

Daylight Saving Time – The Complex Issue That should Be Simple

One issue I’ve seen this happen with over and over is disarmingly simple on the surface, and — like so many others — disturbingly complex under the surface.

The issue? Daylight Saving Time.

That’s right, the semi-annual changing of the clocks.

In many ways, it’s a perfect issue.

  • It’s totally non-partisan.
  • It’s something the government does.
  • It’s something the government does badly.
  • It makes fellow citizens crazy with how dumb it is.

If the legislature can’t fix that, what can it fix?

This story, more or less is what happened when Rep. Kansen Chu sat down in his dentist’s chair in California. It’s what happened when Rep. Kurt Vail sat down at his Thanksgiving table in Connecticut. It’s happened in Texas, Alabama, Massachusetts… the list goes on and on. Every year there’s a parade of wide-eyed legislators who get an idea that they should fix DST for their state, and so they dive in and introduce a bill.

Here’s the list for this year, updated in real time:


Then a few things happen. I’ve seen it over and over now.

For one thing, they get some attention from the press. The reality these days is that outside of a session and an election, there’s very little chance that anything legislators do outside of slugging Santa in a shopping mall is going to get much coverage.

But Daylight Saving Time is like catnip for reporters. They love to write stories about it because it’s such a clear issues, and everyone has an opinion on it. They see DST and think clicks, retweets, and comments.

So, the legislators answer some reporter’s questions and then they have to deal with the repercussions from the bottom-dwellers who hang out on comment boards.

“WHAT ABOUT CRIME (OR THE STATE BUDGET) OR WHATEVER OTHER ISSUE I THINK IS MORE IMPORTANT!”  they scream from their position as the arbiter of all that should and should not be talked about.

Then there are those who make the old arguments. “What about the farmers?!?!?” they ask.

(Interesting actual fact: Farmers have always been against Daylight Saving Time clock changing. Big city chamber-of-commerce types spread the propaganda that farmers wanted it, but they never did. Never. Not then, not now, not ever. If you want to take a position on DST, please leave the farmers out of it. They are busy enough.)

Then if the legislators are lucky, they get a hearing for the bill, and people have a lot of fun giving opinions about whatever aspect of it they want to give, based on what they think are facts — and probably have wrong.

And then the bill dies. It’s what happens every time.

I keep a bill sheet using the BillTrack50 tools, and every year starts out so hopeful. So many bills. And then they all die. All of them.

That is, until last year, when something magical happened.

To understand that magic, you have to understand something about what really kills the DST killing bills.

It’s not the kids-riding-the-bus thing. That’s not really a thing, even though (as with the farmers) people think, wrongly, that it is.

No, what kills it is a thing that kills so much of what a state wants to do: The Federal Government.

Ugh

Once our intrepid citizen legislators get staff working on it, they find out that The Uniform Time Act of 1966 controls the time zones. Looking at the Act, you might think that you could still comply just by picking a different time zone that doesn’t change, but you can’t. You see, the “uniform” part of the Uniform Time Act is that there’s uniformity around the country throughout the year.

“What about Arizona?” you might ask. The Sunshine state is grandfathered in, having opted out of DST before 1966. (Hawaii, too.)

Some other places around the country, notably part of Indiana, had some funky different take on the time, but little by little all the places that aren’t in lockstep with switching the clocks twice a year have gotten in line.

So, back to that magical thing that happened, and it happened in the state that makes dreams come true, if the hype is to be believed: California.

That’s where a Republican member of the lower house, Jay Obernolte, realized that he could in fact take some action. He could ask.

His action: A resolution.

Now I know that the cynical readers here have commenced eye-rolling.

For those who don’t know, resolutions are sometimes called Letters to Santa. They don’t carry the weight of law.

But they can do a lot. Remember, the slaves were freed with the executive branch equivalent, a proclamation.

Anyway, this resolution simply asks that the federal government fix DST.

The sneaky part is, it could just work. The Uniform Time Act, remember, just calls for uniformity. We could fix DST and end all the clock-changing by simply asking the federal government to do so. (For the wonks among us, it’s controlled by the Dept. of Transportation. That’s who approved Indiana becoming more uniform, and who denies any state that might ask to be treated un-uniformly.)

If every state, or at least a huge majority of the states, went to the DoT and said with uniformity that we all want the clock-changing to end… the Feds could actually do it. There’d be some bureaucratic bla bla bla that would probably go on for a year or two, but it could happen without an act of Congress and without a presidential proclamation. It could just… start. One year we could wake up every Monday in the Spring at a time that seems normal to our bodies, and won’t seem like we are getting poked with a cattle prod.

I really shouldn’t joke about it. That Spring Forward time change kills people every year. Heart attacks, Traffic accidents. Workplace accidents. Making light of it must be just painful for the surviving families.

And if one of those families went to a citizen legislator, that legislator could skip the part about there’s really nothing to be done, and instead can say that something can indeed be done. It won’t seem huge, but it is the official voice of the legislature, rising up as one to join their voice with the voice of the most populous state in saying that it’s time for the clock-changing to end.

With enough states, the DoT will be forced to realize that the most uniform time of all is one in which the time doesn’t have to change twice per year at all.

And every single legislator who votes for that will know that they did their part in fulfilling the very notion of a citizen legislator.

That’s the kind of thing that can reinstall hope that will last for years, or until the next time a utility lobbyist asks to see you.

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