SPRINGFIELD – "Whatcha writing about, Daddy?"
"Well, some lawmaker wants to make it against the law to pump your own gas."
My 9-year-old, Caitlin, cocked her head to the left and asked, "Why?"
That’s the question folks across Illinois are asking.
I left several messages with state Rep. Camille Lilly’s office, but never heard back.
So that leaves reporters, other lawmakers — and voters — guessing why she would prohibit anyone but service station employees filling up a gas tank.
"My best guess is that she thinks of this as a jobs bill," said state Sen. Neil Anderson, R-Andalusia. "But I can tell you this, in a border area like the Quad-Cities, it would be absolutely devastating. Gas is already more expensive in Illinois and if every station in the state had to hire people to pump — at $15 per hour — it would really bring up the price of gas in the state. In this area, people would just drive to Iowa to fill up."
Back in 1976, Illinois lawmakers passed legislation allowing motorists to pump their own fuel. Today, only New Jersey and Oregon have laws on the books requiring gas jockeys.
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My memories of the time before self-service gasoline are vague. But I do remember the quiet arguments between my parents.
"Don, please stay in the car and let the man do his job," my mother would implore. But my father, never the most patient person in the world, would tire of waiting for someone else to do a job that he could do just as well himself. He’d begin pumping on his own, and inevitably an attendant would come running, saying, "Sir, sir, don’t do that!"
I guess Dad was strumming the chord of economic independence with his act of civil disobedience. But if you asked my Mom, she’d say he was just embarrassing us all by not obeying the law.
Sometimes, it’s easy to fall victim to the Good Old Days Syndrome. We like to think of it as a golden age when even the lowest-skilled worker could find a job pumping gas.
But it’s almost always a bad idea to introduce legislation to reduce business efficiency so more people can work.
Milton Friedman, the great Nobel Prize-winning economist, used to tell the story of traveling overseas and seeing a canal being dug by people with shovels. He expressed dismay that there were no tractors or other earth-moving equipment. His host responded that it was a "jobs program." Friedman replied, "If that’s the case, take away their shovels and give them spoons to dig with."
Promoting efficiency is almost always the best policy.
Josh Sharp, executive vice president of the Illinois Petroleum Marketers Association, was flummoxed by the legislation.
"I haven’t spoken to Rep. Lilly about this bill. I have spoken to (legislative) staff. It’s unclear what she hopes to accomplish. This past year, the state gasoline tax has doubled, the minimum wage has been increased and cigarette tax has been increased. All of these things have adversely affected our members. Some are just holding on; if (Lilly’s) bill were to pass, it would put some of our members out of business,” he said.
Scott Reeder is a veteran statehouse journalist and freelance reporter; ScottReeder1965@gmail.com.