BANGOR – Gov. Paul LePage told a group of conservatives Wednesday that if the Legislature doesn’t pass his controversial tax overhaul this year he will mount an election campaign next year against the lawmakers who opposed it.

“I fully expect the Legislature is going to say no this year,” he added. “But next year is an election year and I am going to spend the rest of my time as governor fighting the battle of eliminating the income tax and reducing energy costs, I promise you.”

The governor delivered his remarks to about 70 paid attendees of a luncheon sponsored by the Maine Heritage Policy Center, a conservative advocacy group, at the Cross Insurance Center in Bangor. The governor touched on a number of policy areas, including his budget plan, welfare programs and energy costs, during the 40-minute speech. He also made a cryptic reference to his administration’s pitched battle with Portland over General Assistance spending, hinting that he had another plan for the state’s largest city, but he declined to describe it because reporters were present.

The governor devoted most of his speech to promoting his tax plan, a sweeping overhaul embedded in his two-year budget proposal.

LePage has admitted that his plan faces political headwinds. However, his vow to work against state lawmakers who vote against it was his most forceful move yet in support of the overhaul.

“If it doesn’t pass this year and you invite me back next year, I’ll come back with a 20-(point) font … with the name of every legislator and senator who voted against the elimination of the income tax,” he said. “I will spend the rest of my days as governor criticizing and going after those people who don’t care about our elderly, our disabled, people with mental illness, babies being born addicted to drugs.”

LEGISLATIVE LEADERS HAVE LITTLE REACTION

The reaction from legislative leaders was muted, despite the governor’s threat of electoral consequences.

House Speaker Mark Eves, D-North Berwick, said Democrats have concerns about the budget, but have been at the “table negotiating a better deal for middle-income Mainers and small businesses.”

He added, “We have serious concerns about the increase in property taxes, the lack of workforce investment when our economy is struggling, and the fact that the governor’s budget is not paid for.”

Republican leadership, including Senate President Mike Thibodeau of Winterport, Senate Majority Leader Garrett Mason of Lisbon Falls, and House Minority Leader Kenneth Fredette of Newport, all declined to comment.

Driving the tax proposal is an income tax cut that would reduce the top rate from 7.95 percent to 5.75 percent and save taxpayers a projected $938 million over the next four years.

LePage has proposed paying for the lost revenue with other changes, including an increase in the sales tax rate to 6.5 percent. The current rate is 5.5 percent, but it was supposed to fall to 5 percent at the end of the fiscal year June 30.

SOME RESISTANCE TO GOVERNOR’S PLAN

The sales tax increase has left the governor vulnerable to conservative critics. Some current Republican lawmakers actively campaigned to help defeat a similar tax plan passed in 2009, and party leaders have not made a full public endorsement of the governor’s proposal.

The Maine Heritage Policy Center crowd gave LePage a lukewarm reception overall, with some applause and some in the audience asking questions. The response from the governor’s traditional allies outside of the State House has also been subdued.

During a brief question-and-answer session at Wednesday’s event, Jinger Duryea, a member of the policy center’s board of directors, told the governor that small businesses near the New Hampshire border could be hurt by the sales tax increase. New Hampshire does not have a sales tax.

“The last thing we want to see is a sales tax increase,” she said.

The governor acknowledged that the increase would not be ideal, but said it was the only way to help pay for the reduction in the income tax, the cornerstone of his tax plan and his budget.

“I do agree that it’s sort of setting up the good, the bad and the ugly,” he said, adding that the state’s population and demographics could not absorb a complete income tax elimination “without growing the sales tax a little bit.”

LePage also mentioned his plan to introduce an amendment to the state constitution that would require the drawdown of the income tax over time. He didn’t expect that would pass until next year, an election year. And again, he vowed to campaign against any lawmaker who opposed it. The governor argued that the budget and tax plan was the first “attempt to really pay attention to Maine people” and that it will result in the “highest, fastest wage increase that all Mainers are going to receive.”

ON PORTLAND: NO HINT ON WHAT ‘I TRIED TO DO’

The governor covered a variety of topics toward the end of his speech, including Maine’s prospects for importing nuclear energy, socialized medicine and how the 50 states are the “laboratories of democracy” that will save the country from the federal deficit. He referenced the Canadian health care system, adding that “this is where we’re heading. It’s not a premonition. It’s not something I made up.”

Referring to Maine’s energy costs and their impact on the economy, he summoned up the image of China, where rural residents are flocking to cities to find work but face overcrowding and high living costs.

“If we don’t do something, we aren’t going to be able to have our kids live here and survive here. They’re going to be forced into – like all the Chinese people are – into the urban areas,” LePage said.

He paused before shifting to the topic of Portland, the city with which his administration has been engaged in a fierce debate over welfare spending and aid to immigrants.

“Just think about this: Everybody in Maine living in Portland,” LePage said. “I see some funny looks!”

He referenced Portland again, but stopped short.

“The press is here so I won’t tell you what I tried to do,” he said.

The policy center luncheon was the governor’s first of two stops in Bangor on Wednesday. He also held a town hall meeting on his budget at Husson University’s Gracie Theatre in the evening.