In the only scheduled debate in their race for lieutenant governor, state Sens. Dan Patrick and Leticia Van de Putte faced off on Monday night in a lively exchange that displayed their divergent positions on everything from health care and immigration to school finance and taxes.
Both candidates played offense: Patrick, R-Houston, attempted to portray Van de Putte, D-San Antonio, as “out of step” with Texas voters. Van de Putte used the back-and-forth to try to pin Patrick down on votes he'd taken on cuts to public education. But one of the biggest points of contention in the hourlong showdown in Austin was over the state’s tax structure.
Patrick recently called for reducing the state’s dependence on the property tax to fund public schools and relying on the state’s sales tax instead. On Monday, Van de Putte used Patrick's position to argue that he would raise the sales tax, which she said would hurt businesses and consumers. Patrick sought to clarify his proposal, saying he would only support increasing the sales tax “by a penny or two” to compensate for reduced revenue from property taxes.
“There's two people standing on this stage, and I’m the only one that doesn’t want to raise your sales taxes,” Van de Putte said. “To burden Texas businesses and families with a sales tax increase ... well, that’s not being pro-business.”
Patrick shot back that Van de Putte “doesn’t mind” if Texans can’t afford to stay in their homes because of increasing property taxes. He argued that she was mischaracterizing his plan to reduce property taxes by modifying the tax formula. “My opponent is the one who wants to raise every tax she can find,” he said.
While taking questions from Texas Tribune Executive Editor Ross Ramsey, who moderated the debate, the two candidates reiterated many of the same attacks they’ve used on the campaign trail. Patrick highlighted Van de Putte’s support for the Affordable Care Act, which he said is “crashing” across the country.
He advocated for reforming Texas' Medicaid program on the state’s terms by asking for federal block grants instead of expanding the federal health reform law, which Texas Republicans deeply oppose. (There is no indication the federal government would agree to such a plan.)
Van de Putte said she supported expanding Medicaid to cover poor, uninsured adults and vowed to find a Texas-specific solution to do it, pointing out that other Republican-led states have taken that approach.
Van de Putte also took aim at Patrick over the Legislature’s decision to slash billions of dollars in financing for public schools in 2011, citing his vote in support of the budget that enacted the cuts.
Patrick responded that the Legislature was facing a budget shortfall and the cuts to education funding were made to protect taxpayers’ pocketbooks. “We had a choice,” Patrick said. “Conservative Republicans decided not to raise your taxes.”
Van de Putte responded that the cuts costs thousands of teachers their jobs. “Dan, you need a math lesson,” she said.
The candidates faced off on their opposing views on access to abortion in Texas. Van de Putte said the state Legislature needs to leave decisions related to abortion in the hands of women and their families. When she attacked Patrick for his opposition to an exception from the strict abortion regulations in cases of rape or incest, Patrick said Van de Putte was standing against life.
“I understand that some people have different opinions on rape and incest, but that child is still born in the image of God and is a human being,” Patrick said.
Patrick criticized Van de Putte for “cheering on the anarchists that overtook” the state Capitol during an 11-hour filibuster against the abortion restrictions carried out by state Sen. Wendy Davis last year. Davis is now the Democrat running for governor.
The candidates also butted heads over a state law that allows undocumented students to pay in-state tuition at Texas community colleges and universities if they graduate from Texas high schools and have lived in the state for at least three years.
Patrick has been steadfast in his opposition to the so-called Texas DREAM Act, which was signed by Republican Gov. Rick Perry, arguing that it gives individuals who entered the country illegally a leg up in the admissions process. “We’re not saying they can’t go to college. ... It’s a question of fairness,” Patrick said on Monday, adding that the law serves as a “magnet” for more unauthorized entries into the country through Texas.
Van de Putte, who sponsored the measure in the Senate when it was passed in 2001, highlighted the support the bill received from Republicans and the business community. She argued that the law was important for the state’s workforce.
"Dan Patrick hasn't read the bill," she said. "This is not about admissions. This is about what you pay in tuition at the registrar's office."
Monday's debate is likely the only time the two candidates will face off before Election Day. Van de Putte had originally proposed five debates with Patrick, but his campaign only accepted Monday's debate, which was hosted by the Tribune and broadcast by KLRU-TV in Austin.
Van de Putte said she hoped to give voters more debates, considering Patrick participated in more than a dozen candidate forums with his three opponents in the GOP primary. After the debate, Patrick said only one debate was necessary to highlight the differences between the two general election candidates.