From city councils to Congress, elected officials are facing the question of how much self-sacrifice to impose on themselves during an economic recession that may be the deepest since the Great Depression.

The answer has varied greatly, ranging from the Blue Earth County Board approving a 2 percent increase in their salaries to Congressman Tim Walz turning back to the treasury more than $8,700 in pay.

Republicans in the state Legislature have attempted to cut postage budgets and per-diem payments.

Sen. Kathy Sheran, DFL-Mankato, voted for a Republican proposal to slash the number of stamps each senator received by 1,000. And Sheran has declined to take the $30 boost in per diems approved by the Senate starting in 2007 — staying at the longtime rate of $66 a day.

“I think of them as not only being symbolic but as reasonable things that all of us are going to be asked to do,” Sheran said of the trimming she’s voluntarily done.

Republican attempts to impose those sorts of cutbacks across the board in the House and Senate were deflected by the DFL majority, but Sheran said any lawmaker can choose to impose those cuts on themselves.

“They can do it (unilaterally),” she said. “Go for it.”

When the attempts to reduce per diems and postage budgets for lawmakers failed, Rep. Tony Cornish imposed a 10 percent reduction in his per diem from the $77 allowed by the House for each day lawmakers are doing legislative work.

Cornish, R-Vernon Center, said it felt right to take a cut knowing that agencies and organizations across the state are going to be seeing budget reductions as the state grapples with $5.2 billion in red ink over three budget years.

“To keep ours at the same level is kind of hypocritical,” he said. “You’d be best off feeling the pain, too.”

Rep. Kathy Brynaert, DFL-Mankato, opposed the cuts proposed by the Republicans on the opening day of the legislative session and again a week later.

“At this point, I think it creates talking points for them,” Brynaert said of the motivation for the Republican proposals.

The cuts in legislative budgets may still come after committee hearings, but Brynaert said individual legislators have control over how much they accept in assistance. Following her first year in office, Brynaert was second lowest among 12 area lawmakers in total expenses claimed. She took $18,122 — more than $12,000 less than some of her south-central Minnesota colleagues.

“I feel like I’ve been very responsible,” she said. “... I’m certainly not a big spender.”

The self-sacrifice proposals pale in comparison to the overall state budget shortfall. The stamp reduction, for instance, would have totaled $56,000 in savings.

Still, Cornish said, that amount is meaningful when compared to some of the budget decisions facing the state. VINE Faith in Action, the Mankato organization that marshals volunteers to help elderly and disabled residents, is looking for a $20,000 state appropriation.

“It’s doubtful they’ll even get that,” Cornish said.

Walz’s decision to not accept the $4,700 cost-of-living adjustment being provided to members of Congress was actually locked in before he was first elected in 2006. Walz promised on the campaign trail he wouldn’t accept a pay raise until the minimum wage was increased and the federal budget was balanced.

The minimum wage hike was approved quickly, but it appears it will be a long time before the federal budget is back in the black. Surpluses early this decade have turned into a projected annual deficit of more than $1 trillion the current fiscal year.

Walz gave back a $4,130 pay increase a year ago. So this year, he’s surrendering that amount again in addition to the 2009 raise — meaning he will be accepting about $8,700 less than the $174,000 being paid to members of Congress.

“Congressman Walz realizes that returning $8,700 this year to the treasury won’t pay off our $10 trillion debt any time soon,” spokeswoman Meredith Salsbery said, “but he thinks that with our economy in trouble, now is not the time for a pay raise.”

Minnesota state lawmakers make $31,140 in salaries — although some members nearly double that amount when per diems and other expenses are claimed. The salary almost certainly won’t be going up anytime soon.

“I don’t think anybody would have the guts to bring that up,” Cornish said.

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