EDINBURG, Texas (KXAN) — The top two candidates for Texas governor volleyed in their first debate Friday night over questions about some of the most pressing issues for the state, with Gov. Greg Abbott aiming to maintain his polling lead and challenger Beto O’Rourke striving to shake up the race.

During the hour-long debate at the University of Texas Rio Grande Valley campus in Edinburg, the two men faced each other for the first time since O’Rourke interrupted Abbott’s Uvalde news conference in May following the deadly mass shooting there. A fiery exchange similar to that did not happen Friday, but their exchanges still led to some memorable moments that may impact the gubernatorial election.

No more STAAR test?

Both Abbott and O’Rourke received a question about how to retain qualified teachers in Texas classrooms. Both candidates promised to raise their pay, which is likely welcome news to educators statewide.

However, the Democratic challenger went further while discussing other education reforms he’d like to enact if he unseats the incumbent in November. He said, if elected, he would end the STAAR test. That’s the state’s testing program focusing on the core subjects of reading, writing, mathematics, science, and social studies. 

“I’m going to insure that you have more valuable classroom time to connect with those kids, so we’re going to stop the STAAR test,” O’Rourke said while addressing teachers, “and allow you to focus on drawing forth that lifelong love of learning from every child before you.”

The Texas Education Agency paused students from taking the STAAR test in 2020 at the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic. Last year students had to take the test again, but not to hold schools accountable. The tests happened as usual this year, and they’ll be used as part of the state’s school accountability system. Schools that get a D or F will be instead listed as a “no rating.”

STAAR scores for grades three through eight showed gains across the board in math and reading from the 2020-21 school year, TEA data shows. The gains in math, though, have still not reached pre-pandemic levels. Scores also showed the improvement stretch among special education students, economically disadvantaged students and across mastery levels in Texas, according to TEA data.

O’Rourke also suggested he’d like to push for a cost of living adjustment for retired teachers every year. To raise teacher pay, he said he wanted to raise the state’s share of public school funding, which he argued would lower the tax burden on property owners.

‘I will never raise property taxes’

Speaking about property tax relief plans Friday, Abbott claimed O’Rourke voted three times while on the El Paso City Council to raise local tax rates and made a clear assertion if voters grant him a third term as governor.

“I will never raise property taxes,” Abbott said.

“The state of Texas does not levy property tax. That’s only done at the local level,” he added. “What the state of Texas has done — and we will continue to do — is to drive down the ability of the local governments from being able to raise taxes.”

The governor shared another detail of his plan to cut property taxes in Texas, which polls have suggested is a top issue for many voters.

“Because of our strong economy in Texas, we have a budget surplus of $27 billion,” Abbott said Friday. “I want to use at least half of that $27 billion to drive down property tax rates. It can be done in a long-term basis if we use that to lower the school property tax component.”

During a later exchange, he also said his goal is to eliminate the school property tax imposed in Texas.

For his part, O’Rourke laid out how he’d like to provide property tax relief, which included expanding Medicaid and legalizing marijuana to create a new stream of revenue for the state.

“I’ll keep your lights on. I’ll make sure that I keep your kids safe,” O’Rourke said in his closing statement. “We’ll reduce property taxes, and we’ll prioritize the lives of each and every single Texan in this state.”

Uvalde accountability

The moderators peppered the candidates with a number of questions about accountability efforts following the shooting at Robb Elementary School in Uvalde that killed 19 children and two students.

While Abbott said he would make school safety an emergency item for legislators to prioritize during the next legislative session, he addressed his claim that law enforcement misled him with the initial information they shared about the massacre, leading him to make that statement soon after the shooting that “it could have been worse.”

“There needs to be accountability for law enforcement at every level for not following the Columbine protocol,” he said, pointing out investigations are underway right now for seven officers from the Texas Department of Public Safety. Two officers, he said, are currently suspended.

Since the Columbine school massacre in 1999, many police departments have trained officers to make it the first priority to go after an attacker.

However, O’Rourke claimed, “There is a complete failure to hold people responsible accountable. Those families still do not have justice. As governor, I will make it my priority.”

He also said his criticisms of the governor’s response to the shooting means Abbott “has lost the right to serve this state in the most important position of public trust.”

O’Rourke appeared in the afternoon before the debate with several families of the Uvalde shooting victims, and they called for Texas leaders to raise the age to 21 for people to buy a weapon like the AR-15. He said at the debate he would support legislation to do just that, while Abbott said recent court decisions would make that policy unconstitutional.

No debate audience

As the moderators moved from one topic to another in rapid pace Friday, neither candidate received any immediate feedback for their responses from an audience because the debate hall was empty.

O’Rourke claimed in a tweet Friday afternoon that the empty seats are because “Abbott refuses to face those he’s failed these last 8 years.” However, both candidates and their campaigns agreed to the terms of the debate, which included a stipulation that no guests would be in the auditorium.

O’Rourke also mentioned during the debate that the Uvalde victims’ families wanted to sit in the auditorium during the debate.

Meanwhile, during the debate a group of voters gathered in Dallas to share their reactions in real time through the use of dial technology. A number of moments showed clear splits in opinion related to both candidates.