Today is the first of Maine’s 20 mandatory shutdown days to be scheduled over the next two years, days when nonessential government workers are off, government offices are shuttered and the public’s business is neutralized.

The savings is expected to reach $14 million, at least that’s the current thinking. It’s tough to say two years out exactly what the savings might be, or if the furlough actually matures to the full 10 day schedule each year.

The shutdown days make sense from a budget perspective. If employees aren’t working, they’re not getting paid and taxpayers save the cost of those salaries. The plan — which is not a new idea in Maine — was adopted after great resistance to a proposal to impose a 5 percent pay cut on state workers. The furlough days will impose something closer to a 3 percent cut in pay, plus merit pay and automated longevity pay hikes are frozen, with no discussion on a thaw.

It’s a step back, to be sure, but compared to other states, Maine’s public sector employees are paid disproportionately well compared to their peers in the private sector, so pinching these salaries is good for the public wallet.

What isn’t so good is the inability of that public to access government services during these furlough days, most of which are conveniently scheduled to extend already long weekends for government workers. For instance, Labor Day Weekend for state employees will now include Friday, Sept. 5, in addition to the Sept. 7 Monday holiday. Columbus Day Weekend will include Friday, Oct. 9, in addition to the Oct. 11 Monday holiday. And, of course, there’s today, which has extended the Fourth of July holiday an extra day beyond last Friday’s day off.

There is a solitary furlough day scheduled Aug. 7, a Friday, that is not tied to a holiday weekend, but the remaining schedule on 2009 expands holiday weekends. For citizens who have pressing business to conduct with government, it’s a major inconvenience to wait another day on top of an already long weekend.

The shutdown days were scheduled to save salaries, not the costs of heating, cooling, insuring or otherwise of operating offices, so there was no real need to tie these days to existing holidays. It is, undoubtedly, a perk for state workers to get that extra day, which doesn’t exactly balance the fact that the day isn’t paid, but it does make the cut less sharp.

Not all of the furlough days have been scheduled out over the next two years, but those scheduled for the remainder of 2009 lean toward the convenience of state workers instead of the need for citizens to access government. We suggest that as the schedule is set for the remaining shutdown days, it lean equally favorably toward the public.

Here’s an idea: Let workers pick which days they want to take unpaid, coordinating no more than one day off per month with their co-workers so that most offices can remain staffed but taxpayers still realize the benefit of the salary savings, which is the singular goal of the shutdown days. Workers benefit by taking off time that’s convenient for them, and the public benefits by being able to fully access government at their convenience.

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