Gubernatorial challenger Beto O’Rourke squared off with Gov. Greg Abbott on Friday night in a debate from Edinburg, Texas. The duo debated a number of important issues from immigration to gun safety.
The debate was audience free, a condition that Abbott’s staff say was agreed upon months ago but which O’Rourke asked to be changed. O’Rourke tweeted a photo of an empty auditorium before the debate began with the comment, “It’ll be empty—no seats filled—because Abbott refuses to face those he’s failed these last 8 years.”
In his opening remarks, Abbott blamed the Biden administration for most of the issues with immigration and even touted bussing undocumented people from Texas to sanctuary cities as a “solution” to the problem. He claimed that “it would be different” under O’Rourke and accused the challenger of denying that immigration at the border is not an issue.
O’Rourke responded to the jab with the retort that, “What we just heard from the governor is what we’re likely to hear over the course of this debate. He’s going to blame people like President Biden. He’s going to try to lie about my record, and he’s going to distract from his failures, whether it’s his failure to keep the lights on in the grid, his failure to address school shootings or his failure in immigration.” O’Rourke pointed out that Abbott has been in office for eight years and the problem is worse than when he took office. O’Rourke informed those watching that “four billion dollars into Operation Lone Star we are seeing, not fewer, but more encounters at our border right now.”
Operation Lone Star is Texas’ controversial border initiative carried out by the oddly-named Texas Indigent Defense Commission. The program has been the source of many complaints and the target of a federal investigation for alleged civil rights violations. When asked by the moderator whether or not we should put more money into the program, Abbott blamed the Biden administration saying that, “Zero dollars should be going to Operation Lone Star and that’s what it would be if we had a president that was enforcing the immigration laws of the United States of America.”
O’Rourke and Abbott next responded to questions about gun violence. Abbott contended that a law that would raise the age from 18 to 21 to purchase a weapon would not be upheld by a higher court. “Any attempt to try to raise the age is going to be met with it being overturned,” he said. O’Rourke replied that nothing has changed in the state to make it safer for children such as were killed in Uvalde, Texas and “the only thing standing in our way is the Governor of the State of Texas.” He noted that it took Florida only 23 days after their last school shooting to raise the age to purchase a weapon. “After all of these mass shootings,” O’Rourke said, “this Governor has done nothing except make it easier for people who should not have a firearm to carry them publicly and this is what we get as a result. We need change.”
Abbott reiterated his position against “red flag” laws – laws that would enable the police to petition a court for the temporary removal of weapons from someone they believe to be an imminent threat – because they “would deny a lawful Texas gun owner their constitutional right to due process.” O’Rourke replied that if he is elected, “Raising the minimum age to purchase to 21? We can get that done. A red flag law? We’ll get that done. Universal background checks? We will get that done.”
During discussion of the school shooting in Uvalde, Abbott admitted that those who failed to act should be held accountable and claimed that he is currently doing that. A heated moment occurred when O’Rourke accused him of shifting blame. “The buck stops on your desk,” O’Rourke said looking directly at Abbott. “You blame everyone else. You blame Joe Biden for other issues…” The moderator interrupted his comments stating, “We need to move on.”
During the debate the two were asked about issues related to police funding, healthcare and the power grid. O’Rourke contended that Abbott’s inaction as Governor has exacerbated these problems. “Governor Abbott’s grid failure is part of a pattern over these last eight years,” he said. “Warned about, for example, school violence and gun violence specifically against children he does nothing. Warned about problems in child protective services, our foster care program he does nothing and it gets worse. Warned before February 2021 that we had problems with the grid, he did nothing.” Abbott sat at his desk, his head down writing on a piece of paper as O’Rourke continued. “The kicker is,” he said, “the grid is still not fixed.” In his response, Abbott accused O’Rourke of “fear mongering” on the issue.
Public schools came up in the debate a second time when moderators asked about issues with teacher shortages and questioned the pair about how they would respond. O’Rourke advocated raising teacher pay, the elimination of the STAAR test (Texas’ accountability test for student K-12), providing a cost of living adjustment for retired teachers, and ensuring that teachers are treated with dignity and respect. He also supported raising the state’s share of public education funding to take some of the burden off of local taxpayers.
Abbott responded by saying that the state has raised the state’s share of funding for public schools during his tenure, both in 2019 and 2021. He also touted a statewide teacher incentive program that rewards master teachers. “If teachers will dedicate themselves to be master teachers they will be able to earn a six figure salary.” Abbott promised pay raises to teacher going forward to which O’Rourke responded, “He’s been Governor eight years and teachers are still paid $7,500 less than their national counterparts.”
Property tax concerns were addressed when moderators explained that Abbott has proposed using half of a large budgetary surplus to immediately reduce property taxes statewide. When asked how to provide long-term property tax relief, the debaters had interesting responses.
O’Rourke advocated the expansion of Medicaid under the Affordable Care Act and reducing the amount of taxes that cover uncompensated care, increase the state’s share for public education funding to a 50/50 split, and ensure that corporations pay their fair share of property taxes.
Abbott said that he will continue to “drive down the ability of local government to raise taxes,” hearkening a departure from the concept of local control or limited government that has been a traditional GOP hallmark for decades. Abbott indicated that his goal is to “eliminate the school property tax that’s imposed on the State of Texas.” He did not indicate how the revenue from that tax would be replaced.
In closing statements Abbott touted Texas as number one in “so many categories” and said that he is running for re-election to “Keep Texas number one, to cut your property taxes, to secure the border, to keep dangerous criminals behind bars, and to keep deadly fentanyl off our streets.”
O’Rourke said, “I don’t think Greg Abbott wakes up wanting to see children shot in the schools or the grid to fail but it’s clear that he’s incapable or unwilling to make the changes necessary to prioritize the lives of our fellow Texans.” O’Rourke said that if elected he would, “Keep your lights on, I’ll make sure to keep your kids safe. We’ll reduce property taxes and we’ll prioritize the lives of each and every single Texan in this state.”
The election for Governor is November 8.