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Woman hand swiping credit card at gas pump station

File photo of a woman at a gas pump. (123rf.com)

Independence Day is about freedom, and this year Illinoisans will be celebrating their freedom to buy their gasoline in Missouri.

Drivers in southwestern Illinois owe thanks to their Missouri neighbors, who are able to keep commerce moving and potholes filled for 38 cents per gallon less on average than the sad state of Illinois. Expect to see more Illinois license plates at Missouri pumps since Illinois on Monday (July 1) doubled the state tax on gas when the overall tax burden was already 20 cents a gallon higher than Missouri’s.

And after they fill up, those Illinois drivers are likely to keep spending in the St. Louis area.

We know that’s going to happen because Robert Forsythe knows the retail gasoline business on both sides of the Mississippi. He’s president of Moto Inc., operating 79 MotoMart gas and convenience stores in six Midwest states.

“Go over to our MotoMart on Riverview Drive, the first stop in Missouri, and look at all the license plates from Illinois,” Forsyth said. “People underestimate the economic impact of people choosing to buy gas [outside] of Illinois, and they will make a trip to do that.”

Forsyth said raising the gas tax is a blow to Illinois’ border areas. He said drivers making the trip to Missouri buy gas, cigarettes that are now nearly $3-a-pack cheaper after another new Illinois tax hike and then go shopping.

More than 800,000 people live in Illinois counties bordering Missouri, according to census estimates. Those are a lot of potential customers for savvy Missouri retailers.

“It’s stupid. When you’ve got a state 15 miles away with cheaper gas, you’re not going to get any of that business here,” said Art Gantner of Belleville. “They need to remember they are driving people away from the state instead of bringing business in, same way as with the cigarette tax. All these taxes are on the middle-class people all the time.”

“All these taxes” is right: There were 21 taxes and fees just imposed by Illinois lawmakers as they sought $45 billion for infrastructure and for a record-breaking $40 billion budget.

In truth, despite revenues from all the new taxes, expanding gambling and legalizing marijuana, Illinois’ elected leaders still went deeper into debt to fund Gov. J.B. Pritzker’s infrastructure spending plan. And the state’s $40 billion budget is still in the red: An Illinois Policy Institute analysis found the budget out of balance by up to $1.3 billion. The fiscal year 2020 budget is the 18th in a row that will spend more than the state brings in.

Illinois lawmakers refuse to fight for solutions such as a balanced budget or pension reform, and just fall back on tax hikes, said Mike Whittimore, also of Belleville.

“It fascinates me that with all the challenges our state has that they think increasing taxes is the best possible solution to their problems, especially on a consumable like gas that we need to get to work, to be a family and to live our lives,” Whittimore said.

So many taxes, so little fiscal independence. Illinois is shackled by $6.6 billion in unpaid bills, between $136.8 billion and $250 billion in unpaid pension liabilities and weary taxpayers carrying the nation’s heaviest tax burden.

So who can blame an Illinois driver seeking to exercise the freedom to choose cheaper Missouri gas? And who can blame Missouri for recognizing the burden carried by their neighbors to the east and offering to lighten their load — with cheaper gas, cheaper cigarettes and cheaper personal and corporate tax rates?

And who can blame a smart Missouri commercial or residential real estate agent for exercising their freedom to have a great third quarter: A high tax burden is the No. 1 reason Illinoisans say they want to leave the state, and Illinois has seen five consecutive years of net population loss.

Here’s the sales pitch: “Welcome to Missouri, where cheaper gas is just the beginning.”

Brad Weisenstein is editor at the Illinois Policy Institute. For 32 years before that, he was an editor at his hometown newspaper in Belleville.