AUGUSTA, Maine — It’s no big secret that Gov. Paul LePage wants to shrink state government, but he took that idea a step further on Thursday by maligning an entire block of state workers as “corrupt.”

According to press accounts of the event, LePage was asked a question about fees at the latest town hall forum in Newport. Here’s how he responded:

“Believe me, there is a lot of good and hardworking people that work for the state. They are not the problem,” he said, according to press accounts of the event in Newport. “The problem is the middle management of the state is about as corrupt as you can be. Believe me, we’re trying every day to get them to go to work, but it’s hard.”

He offered no proof of corruption, no data to back his case that these managers don’t work and he didn’t identify a specific department. He did go on to talk about how most of these employees are not appointed by him and are protected through union contracts.

For the better part of a year, the LePage administration has sparred with the state’s largest union, the Maine State Employees Association, over a new collective bargaining agreement. That protracted fight is likely to be settled through court proceedings.

The MSEA was the first group to take exception to LePage’s latest comments.

“All Mainers can take great pride in the men and women who work for the state of Maine,” Ginette Rivard, the union’s president, said in a statement. “These public workers do important work for all Maine people. For Gov. LePage to call them ‘corrupt’ is baseless and insulting to every public worker who has dedicated their lives to making Maine a great place to live, work and raise a family.”

“In the 16 months since taking office, Gov. LePage has met with just about every business owner willing to meet with him. We invite him to start spending some time with his own employees.”

LePage often has talked about shrinking government and that push is part of a national narrative by the Republican Party. But this is the first time LePage has targeted state workers specifically.

Since he took office, LePage has tried to push what’s known as right-to-work or fair-share legislation that would make union fees voluntary for nonunion members. So far, the Legislature hasn’t passed those bills.

Two bills did pass this past session that took away union rights from two groups: independent childcare providers and employees of the former Decoster Egg Farm in Turner.

In the past, LePage has said he has no problem with unions, just doesn’t like union bosses, but Thursday’s comments seemed to suggest otherwise.

Sen. Dawn Hill, D-Cape Neddick, said Mainers deserve leaders who work for them, not against them.

“The governor’s negative name calling is unacceptable and unprofessional,” Hill said. “He is making unfounded accusations against hard working Mainers. His divisive rhetoric must end and the conversation must return to a place of civility.”

Rep. Ken Fredette, R-Newport, called the comments “out of line” and said the governor should apologize.

Late Friday, the governor sent a letter to all state employees to “ensure that the full meaning of my remarks were clear.”

“When my administration came into office, we promised Maine people we would not settle for the status quo. The culture of state government needed to change from ‘no’ to ‘can do!’ Many of you have taken this to heart and are doing great things for the people of Maine,” Gov. LePage wrote.

“However, for whatever reason, some employees have not come on board. … Those employees want to keep doing the same thing because it was always done that way. Quite frankly, that attitude is unacceptable. In my opinion, it shows that they have been corrupted by the bureaucracy.

“When the union bosses tell employees they should not participate in the administration’s initiatives and instead just ‘ride it out,’ we are dealing with a lack of integrity. In other words, we are dealing with corruption,” the governor wrote in his letter.

Corrupt, in dictionary terms, is used synonymously with spoiled, rotten or contaminated. In most cases, though, corruption refers to unethical, inscrutable or illegal behavior.

In less than 16 months as governor, LePage has earned a reputation for talking bluntly. Even before he was elected, LePage caused a stir when he told a crowd that he would tell President Barack Obama to “go to hell.”

Two weeks after taking office, he stirred up a controversy when he called the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People a special-interest group and told critics to “kiss my butt” over his decision to not attend the NAACP’s annual Martin Luther King Jr. Day celebrations.

He later raised eyebrows when he dismissed the dangers of a chemical additive used in some plastic bottles by saying the worst that could happen was “some women may have little beards.”

A year ago, he riled labor groups, artists and others by removing a huge mural depicting the state’s labor history from the Labor Department headquarters. When asked what he’d do if anybody tried to block the mural from being taken down, he said, “I’d laugh at them, the idiots.”

The Associated Press contributed to this story. Follow BDN writer Eric Russell on Twitter @BDNPolitics.