AUSTIN, Texas — The state senators vying to be Texas' next lieutenant governor tore into one another Monday night during their only scheduled debate, clashing on immigration, education and tax policy while accusing each other of misrepresenting their legislative records.
Republican Dan Patrick, a conservative Houston radio talk show host and tea party darling, is favored in November — meaning San Antonio Democrat Leticia Van de Putte had the most to gain. She came out swinging, saying her opponent supports higher sales taxes but has refused to divulge his own federal income tax returns as other top candidates have.
"He wants to raise your taxes but he won't release his," Van de Putte said, accusing Patrick of backing a "tax swap" that would mean higher sales taxes so that he could lower property taxes.
Patrick countered that he'd lower property taxes first, then study increasing the sales tax "by a penny or two" so he could cut homeowners' tax burden even more.
"My opponent is the one who wants to raise every tax she can find," Patrick said. He also said he'd released 160-plus pages of financial disclosure information as a state senator, which he said would be more informative than a personal income tax return that ran about eight pages.
Van de Putte, who works as a pharmacist when she is not in the Legislature, grinned and concluded: "There's two people on this stage and I'm the only one who doesn't want to raise your taxes."
Patrick stayed aggressive, however, calling Van de Putte "a liberal" who would "turn Texas into California." He said that meant high taxes and unchecked government spending that would hurt job creation. Van de Putte responded that spending on public education and health care would be a good thing in Texas, where a Democrat hasn't won statewide office in 20 years.
The lieutenant governor oversees the Texas Senate and is in some ways the state's most-powerful position. Taking the gloves off was a departure for Patrick, who has made relatively few public appearances since knocking off incumbent Lt. Gov. David Dewhurst and two other top GOP candidates in the Republican primary.
When Van de Putte said she was a faithful Roman Catholic who would prefer a world with no abortions, but that making the procedure more difficult for women to obtain wasn't the answer, Patrick pounced.
"She tries to use flowery language," he said "but she has stood against life ever since she's been in the Legislature."
Patrick has called for securing the Texas-Mexico border above all else and when Van de Putte suggested that such rhetoric was offense to people living in South Texas, he said those same residents had to be protected from terrorists, drug smugglers and gang members slipping into U.S. territory.
Asked about Gov. Rick Perry's signature economic incentive funds, which are supposed to attract top job creators to Texas but whose financial specifics have drawn criticism from independent auditors, Patrick sided with conservative activists who said it's time to scrap them. Van de Putte, who has previously backed the funds, called for a moratorium until more financial scrutiny occurs.
They also agreed that Texas should further reduce the number of standardized tests high school students are required to pass for graduation. Both serve on the Texas Senate Education Committee and last year, the Legislature slashed the number of such exams from 15 to five.
But they clashed anew on a 2001 Texas law that extended in-state tuition at public universities to the children of immigrants who came to the U.S. illegally. Patrick said he didn't want to deny legal residents entry to their chosen schools in favor of those whose families broke the law to come to Texas. Van de Putte accused him of failing to read the measure since it only affects how much college costs, not who gets in.
"I have read the bill, Leticia," Patrick shot back.
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