The headline in the paper said, “Leaders agree to suspend gas tax.”

The legislature of Illinois, at the behest of Governor George Ryan, is proposing suspending the state sales tax on gasoline for six months, starting as soon as this weekend. Sounds pretty good, right? Gas prices seem higher than ever, and every one of us likes to spend a little less.

Are Americans truly outraged at the price of gasoline? I’m not just talking about bitching and moaning every once in awhile. I mean real outrage that motivates action.

I don’t see a massive drop in sales of those gas-guzzling SUVs. I don’t see anyone urging investment in alternative energy sources. I don’t see the roads suddenly emptier because of more car pooling, mass transit, etc.

Don’t get me wrong. I’m not doing any of those things and turning into Ed Begley, either. But I’m also not whining about the price of gas.

The fact is that we Americans love our cars. We love driving, we love driving fast, we love driving fast in big vehicles that scream, “Get out of my way! I have to get to Starbucks to spend four dollars on a cup of coffee!”

Sure, four bucks for a mocha grande latte, but two bucks for a gallon of unleaded? Must be a bunch of criminals running this operation! Or maybe OPEC is simply operating under the same system of supply-and-demand as every other capitalist organization.

So, back to the suspended sales tax idea. Unfortunately, you’re dealing with politicians here, so more than a bit of cynicism is called for.

The “leaders” want us to see that headline and say, “Hurray for our leaders! They really do care about us, and they’re proving it by helping us escape from the tyranny of high gas prices! They love us and we love them! We want to hug them! Let us kiss their babies for a change! We must make contributions to their campaign coffers and shower them with affection! Leaders rule!!!”

Ahem. Reality check, please.

The tax would only be suspended for six months. Guess what’s happening between now and then? There’s a little thing called an election, and guess who wants your vote so desperately that they’re willing to say or do anything to get your vote? The political “pander” light is shining more brightly right now than the neon “hot” sign at Krispy Kreme. Then, a few weeks after the election, when the incumbents are safely returned to their office, the sales tax is quietly returned to the pumps.

You ask, “What’s the difference, as long as they’re saving us money? It must be a pretty substantial amount if they are spending so much valuable legislative time discussing it and proposing it and considering it and voting on it.” Okay, let’s investigate just how much money we’re talking about here.

A nickel. Five cents a gallon. That’s the current gasoline sales tax in Illinois.

Let’s do a little bit of arithmetic (this always makes politicians angry, because they don’t want you to actually figure out the numbers behind this, and you’ll see why in a moment).

Assume for our purposes that the average car has a 15 gallon gas tank, and that the owner has to fill it up once a week. I know that there are people who use more than that for business or on summer vacation, but just go with me here.

So, 15 gallons a week with a savings of 5 cents per gallon means you’ll save 75 cents each week. If the tax is suspended for six months, let’s round that out to 25 weeks. At 75 cents a week, you will have saved $18.75 at the end of those 25 weeks. If you drive a little more, make it $20. More than that? Okay, let’s go up to $30.

Thirty dollars? Over six months? Is that enough of a savings to have you jumping up and down in support of the “leaders” who made this miracle possible?

But wait. If the state isn’t collecting that nickel a gallon, that means that tax revenue is going to be down, and how much can that be? The Governor says it would only cost the state about $180,000,000!

Much of that huge chunk of change would normally be used to repair roads and bridges, which are in need of major maintenance all across Illinois, just as in the rest of America. Oh, good thinking! This is the typical modern approach to problems. Give people a feel-good quick-fix rather than working towards a real, long-term solution.

A hundred eighty million dollars — just so you can get thirty bucks back? Well, no, not really. That money is actually being used to guarantee that our “leaders” get to keep their jobs, and they’re hoping that we’ll be suckers enough to fall into their pandering pit. Let’s hear it for our leaders!

I have a better idea. How about this headline: “Americans agree to suspend leaders!” Six months should just about do it.