In this Nov. 4, 2021, file photo, Gov. Janet Mills listens as Kara Hay, chief executive officer of PenquisCAP, speaks during a press conference in Brewer. Credit: Linda Coan O'Kresik / BDN

AUGUSTA, Maine — Top legislative Democrats joined a Thursday letter challenging Gov. Janet Mills to give state retirees a bigger cost-of-living increase to address inflation with the governor nearly ready to release a key spending plan.

People in the Maine Public Employee Retirement System, which includes retired state employees and teachers, were told last summer that they would receive a 3 percent increase to their benefits up to nearly $23,000. Inflation during that time was 5.4 percent.

A letter sent to the governor on Thursday by 59 lawmakers led by Sen. Joe Rafferty, D-Kennebunk, and joined by all Democratic leaders in both chambers, including Senate President Troy Jackson, D-Allagash, and House Speaker Ryan Fecteau, D-Biddeford, asks Mills to fund an increase commensurate with the level of inflation in her upcoming budget proposal.

“We cannot allow our retirees to continue to struggle,” wrote Rafferty, a retired teacher.

It puts pressure on Mills in the weeks before her election-year State of the State address. The Democrat is expected to release her plan for Maine’s $800 million surplus through mid-2023 in the days following that.

She has indicated plans for another giveback to taxpayers that is a top priority for Republicans, as well as sending more to health care providers. The cost of the increase would be a good chunk of the surplus at roughly $147 million, according to retirement system documents.

While Democrats are leading the charge on the letter, four Republicans also signed on — Sen. Marianne Moore of Calais and Reps. Sheila Lyman of Livermore Falls, Tim Roche of Wells and Billy Bob Faulkingham of Winter Harbor. Rep. Bill Pluecker, I-Warren, also signed the letter.

The letter notes changes to the pension system under former Gov. Paul LePage, Mills’ Republican opponent in 2022, including a cut in the maximum cost-of-living adjustment and limiting the increase to the first $20,000 of pension earnings.

The governor has expressed concerns about inflation in the past, most recently in a visit to the White House with other governors this weekend. The economy is sure to be central to her expected matchup with LePage this fall as Republicans look to tie her governance to national issues.

On Friday, Mills spokesperson Lindsay Crete said lawmakers’ concerns will be considered as she finalizes her supplemental budget.

“She, too, recognizes the challenges retirees are facing as a result of cuts by the previous administration and legislature — challenges that have become more difficult with rising costs — and she will evaluate ways that she can work with the Legislature in a fiscally-responsible manner to benefit retirees,” Crete said.

Correction: A previous version of this article misstated the cost of an additional 2.4 percent increase in Maine pension holders’ cost of living adjustment to their benefits.