By Robert T. Garrett

Lieutenant governor candidates Dan Patrick and Leticia Van de Putte clashed on education Monday in their only scheduled debate, with Patrick defending lawmakers' deep cuts to schools three years ago while Van de Putte said his tightfisted ways have hurt Texas students.

"He voted against our children," she said.

Patrick, the Republican nominee, replied that he guarded Texans against a tax increase when the state faced a $27 billion budget hole after the severe receession. Van de Putte, his Democratic foe, surely would have raised taxes, he said.

"Your children weren't shorted," Patrick said. "She's exaggerating the facts."

The rivals for the state's No. 2 elected office also sparred over taxes, border security, college tuition rates for those in the country illegally, abortion and gay marriage in their debate, which was televised statewide, mostly on public television stations.

The lieutenant governor presides over the Senate and wields wide influence on legislation. The post is open for the first time since 2002 after Patrick dispatched Lt. Gov. David Dewhurst in the GOP primary.

The candidates, both state senators, have been friends during the past four legislative sessions but came out swinging.

"Dan, you need a math lesson," Van de Putte said after Patrick called the $5.4 billion cut from schools in 2011 a regrettable necessity. She noted that after the cuts, school districts let 11,000 teachers go and requested more than 8,000 waivers from the state law that limits the size of classes in the early grades.

Citing State District Judge John Dietz's recent ruling that the state's school finance system is unconstitutional because it provides inadequate and unequal funding, Van de Putte said lawmakers have failed. "As lieutenant governor, Job 1 is education," she said.

Patrick, a Houston lawmaker who headed the Senate's schools panel in last year's session, said his first allegiance is to protecting taxpayers and keeping the state attractive to businesses.

"I know my math," he said. Among the 11,000 teachers laid off "were a lot who just retired," he said, accusing Van de Putte of glossing over fine details.

"Her response would have been, she would have raised your taxes instead of cutting 4 or 5 percent out of education," Patrick said.

On taxes, Van de Putte, a San Antonio senator, assailed Patrick's suggestion that Texas could increase its 6 1/4  percent sales tax by 1 or 2 percent to help buy down, or even eliminate, school property taxes.

"Dan is the only Republican that I know that wants to increase your sales taxes," she said, calling his proposal "tooth-fairy tax policy" that would hurt businesses.

Patrick, though, said reducing property taxes and eliminating or greatly reducing the state's business-franchise tax would fire what's already a strong economy to its greatest prosperity yet.

Noting that Van de Putte voted against lawsuit limits, Patrick said, "This is now not a time to elect a liberal to be lieutenant governor who would change every policy that we have put in place and turn Texas into California."

Their contest has been relatively quiet so far, and Patrick is thought to enjoy a strong advantage because of the dominance of Republicans in statewide offices. Van de Putte hopes to boost turnout of Hispanics and appeal to moderate voters, including some Republican women, who might be wary of Patrick's staunch conservative stances.

Immigration has been a flashpoint between the two. Patrick noted international gang activity in Texas and said Islamic State militant group in the Middle East "threatens us today, to come across our border. As lieutenant governor, this will be my priority."

Van de Putte said state deployment of National Guard troops has hurt South Texas' economy. She also said her Republican opponent has been among those who use "vile rhetoric" that dehumanizes immigrants.

On the question of the 2001 Texas law that lets unauthorized immigrants who have completed high school pay the same tuition as citizens do at state colleges and universities, Patrick said it was "a question of fairness" that citizens shouldn't lose a spot in a university to a non-citizen.

Van de Putte quickly interjected: "Dan Patrick hasn't read the bill. This is not about admissions. This is about what you pay in tuition at the registrar's office."

Patrick shot back, "I have read the bill, Leticia. My point was, [at] the University of Texas where there are very few spots, and if it comes down to a student who is not a citizen and one who is, I will stand by the citizen to get that spot."

He called the 2001 bill, which Van de Putte helped pass, a magnet that has attracted illegal immigration, creating a porous border and security problems.

He said she voted to provide such immigrants with comprehensive health care, which he opposes.

On social issues, such as abortion, Patrick accused Van de Putte of being out of step with a conservative state.

"She tries to use flowery language, but she has stood against life ever since she's been in the Legislature, and that's almost 24 years," he said.

Van de Putte, a Catholic and a mother of six children, said she and her husband "have lived our faith." But abortion should be left to families, and the state should do more to prevent unplanned pregnancies, she said, instead of cutting funding of family planning services.

She tried to link Patrick's opposition to allowing abortion in cases of rape and incest to broader women's issues, such as laws to ensure equal pay and funding to quickly test rape kits. Patrick dismissed the line as a diversion.

"One way you protect women is to protect little girls in the womb," he said.

On homosexuality, Patrick lambasted Van de Putte, saying she wants federal judges to override a 3-to-1 vote by Texans to ban gay marriage in 2005.

"Our state has spoken," he said. "The federal government needs to get out of our business."

Van de Putte said attitudes have softened in the past nine years. Gays "deserve full equality," and the state should encourage "loving relationships" by people who are committed to one another, she said.

Staff writer Marissa Barnett in Austin contributed to this report.

(c)2014 The Dallas Morning News