AUGUSTA — Two memos released Tuesday show that Gov. Paul LePage intends to limit the size of Maine’s government by maintaining a hiring freeze for most of the currently vacant state jobs.

The memos, which appear to have been sent from LePage’s staff to members of his Cabinet and senior staff, underscore an earlier email message from a LePage senior policy adviser that stated a goal of reducing the state workforce by about 20 percent to 9,500 positions in the governor’s next two-year budget plan. The state has about 11,810 positions currently filled, though in some cases one person may hold more than one position, according to Department of Administration and Financial Services spokesman David Heidrich.

The same email also said LePage would again seek to reduce the state’s top marginal income tax rate when he presents his final two-year budget proposal in January.

The memos that surfaced this week focus on shrinking state government by limiting hiring to fill vacancies. “The Governor is directing that all new executive branch hiring cease until further notice,” the memos said.

LePage responded to news reports about the internal communications Tuesday by circulating a letter to state employees saying he has no plans to send out thousands of pink slips in an effort to reduce the income tax rate. At the same time, he did make it clear he wants to shrink, or “right-size,” state government.

“I want to be perfectly clear,” LePage wrote to employees. “The overall goal of our next budget is to create a more affordable and efficient government that is accountable to the taxpayer and controls spending and reduces taxes.”

Leaders of Maine State Employees Association SEIU Local 1989, which represents about 8,000 state workers, have been hearing about the hiring freeze from concerned union members, said Mary Ann Turowski, the association’s director of politics and legislation. Turowski said some state agencies already are understaffed.

“It continues to exacerbate the short-staffing that exists on many levels of state government and in many agencies,” Turowski said of the LePage decision to leave vacant posts unfilled.

By not filling the positions, the governor is creating a situation where staff members in law enforcement, psychiatric hospitals or other facilities will be forced to work mandatory overtime, which also costs the state more money. And even if the administration eventually authorizes filling positions, merely slowing down the process could make it more difficult to fill those vacancies, she said.

Turowski said she was also struggling to reconcile the various memos on hiring and staffing levels coming from the LePage administration in recent weeks.

“It’s unclear to me what the hiring freeze actually means and how it is going to operate,” Turowski said.

The hiring freeze is not absolute, according to the administration’s memos. As with previous hiring freezes by the administration, it allows for positions to be filled when necessary – if the governor approves and signs special “hiring justification forms.”

There are about 1,400 vacant positions in the executive branch, based on numbers provided by the Department of Administration and Financial Services. However, as of Tuesday, there were only 44 jobs posted as open on the state’s job boards seeking applicants. Some of those positions also seemed to be posted more than once and include everything from office assistants to hospital nurses.

The hiring freeze memos, circulated on July 17, came just five days after an email to department heads from LePage senior policy adviser Kathleen Newman was leaked to the Portland Press Herald.

In that email, Newman outlined the governor’s goals for reducing the overall workforce to 9,500 positions and pursuing an income tax rate reduction.

The state has just over 13,000 positions included in the state’s current budget, and about 11,810 of those positions are currently filled. At current staffing levels, LePage’s goal to cut back to 9,500 positions would mean a reduction of 2,310 occupied positions.

LePage, however, criticized news reports about his goals during a radio interview and denied that he wanted to cut government by 20 percent in order to fund another income tax cut.

“That’s not at all what’s happening,” LePage told Bangor-based WVOM radio talk show hosts Ric Tyler and George Hale during his weekly appearance.

He instead said the hiring freeze was prompted because the Legislature, specifically Sen. Roger Katz, R-Augusta, passed a pay hike for workers at the state’s secure mental health hospitals, the Riverview Psychiatric Center in Augusta and the Dorothea Dix Psychiatric Center in Bangor.

“And as far as the 20 percent cut, those are all vacant positions that have been vacant for a long time,” LePage said. “So it’s just crazy, what’s going on right now in Maine is the fix is in by the media.”

LePage’s letter to all state workers Tuesday also blamed the hiring freeze on an “injustice created by the Legislature.”

“In a purely political move, the Legislature authorized significant salary increases for employees at the state’s two psychiatric centers,” LePage wrote. “The money for the increases comes directly from the account that provides salary increases to all state employees based on future labor negotiations.”

Katz said Tuesday the Legislature approved the pay increases at Riverview as a means of reducing staffing shortages that had led to patient and staff safety concerns that could no longer be overlooked. Katz said the pay increases for nurses, direct care mental health workers and acuity specialists are helping to make the hospital more competitive in the local labor market.

“We were in a downhill spiral. The fewer staff you have, the more dangerous the conditions become for both patients and staff, and patients weren’t getting appropriate care,” Katz said. “This wasn’t a partisan issue at all.”

Katz said the increases amount to about $940,000 and that LePage tapped $6.3 million from the same fund to increase pay for state law enforcement officers, including state troopers, Marine Patrol officers and the Maine Warden Service.

“So this suggestion that the raises for the embattled Riverview employees is the cause for a statewide hiring freeze just sort of has me scratching my head,” Katz said.

He said lawmakers were all anxious to see LePage’s budget proposals and which positions he wanted to keep and eliminate.

“Because let’s be clear, when you are talking about cutting state employees, by definition you are talking about cutting services and we will have to wait and see where he is suggesting service cuts,” Katz said. “They may be completely appropriate but without knowing where they are, it’s hard to react.”

He said if LePage has “a leaner way of providing essential government services, everybody is interested in seeing that.”

Peter Steele, LePage’s communications director, said reporters were incorrectly linking the reductions in the state workforce to LePage’s goal to reduce the state’s income tax.

“One is not dependent on the other,” Steele said. “He wants state government jobs to fulfill a specific purpose and no state government job should be decided for political purposes during an election year. He’s looking at all of state government and if there are positions that are vacant, maybe we should get rid of them.”

Steele said LePage was evaluating many factors, including whether the positions were so-called “limited period” positions that are funded with outside grants for short-term goals and whether those positions were resulting in “good work product” for the state.

Both Steele and LePage’s press secretary, Adrienne Bennett, said the governor will ensure that jobs vital to the functions of state government are filled, but they refused to release any of the most recently approved hiring authorization forms to show which specific jobs are being filled.

“Why can’t you just report that we said these vital positions are being – that there are certain exemptions – because that’s the fact,” Bennett said.

Staff Writer Kevin Miller contributed to this report.