AUSTIN - Better schools and bigger insurance bills - two surefire topics for politicians wanting to get the attention of voters this year.
And in the hotly contested race for lieutenant governor, those subjects have become the central themes of the two major candidates seeking that post.
Democrat John Sharp and Republican David Dewhurst are trying to sell voters on their respective plans to improve educational opportunities and reduce insurance rates - though each has a different emphasis.
Mr. Sharp, the former state comptroller, is pitching a program to offer a free college education to every Texas student who graduates from high school with a B average and who maintains at least a B average in college.
He also wants to offer a free college education to the children of any teacher who works in a public school for a least 10 years - a proposal designed to ease the state's teacher shortage
"A high school diploma used to be enough for most Texas jobs. Today, more than half of all new jobs demand at least some college or post-secondary training, and half of those require a college degree," he said.
Mr. Dewhurst, the state land commissioner, is promoting his plan to curb runaway insurance premiums by a combination of lawsuit restrictions and new state supervision of rates.
His main targets are homeowners insurance and medical malpractice insurance, which have become much more expensive in the last year.
"There is a crisis in homeowners insurance and in medical malpractice insurance. The rates are spiraling out of control. It is threatening the right of Texans to own a home and to have access to affordable health care," he said.
Mr. Sharp's scholarship proposal is a holdover from 1998, when he narrowly lost his bid for lieutenant governor.
"We have one group of politicians that does a lot of good things for rich kids and another group of politicians that does a lot of good things for poor kids," Mr. Sharp said.
"And nobody is doing anything for middle-class kids. Nowhere is this more true than paying for a college education.
"Their families earn too much to qualify for needs-based scholarships and not enough to shoulder the costs of college on their own."
His plan, based on the similar Hope Scholarship program in Georgia, would cost about $ 850 million in the next two-year budget.
He would pay for it using proceeds from the Texas lottery - money that already is dedicated to public education.
Mr. Sharp also has a proposal to reduce insurance rates, and Mr. Dewhurst has a plan to offer interest-free loans to college students.
But Mr. Sharp identified the college scholarship proposal as his best idea, and Mr. Dewhurst tapped his insurance proposal as his leading idea.
Mr. Sharp said a better educated workforce is key to Texas' future and that "it's up to us to decide if the Texas of this new century will be an economic dynamo or an economic backwater."
A self-proclaimed conservative group active in textbook selection and other education issues sharply questioned his proposal.
"We would support and like to see more people go to college, but there has to be a better way than paying for it out of taxpayers' pockets. I am not sure Texas can afford it," said Peggy Venable of Texas Citizens for a Sound Economy.
Ms. Venable said that with the state budget as tight as it is, "We should be shrinking government programs, not expanding them."
Nick Voinis, a spokesman for the Dewhurst campaign, raised doubts about the funding source, because lottery proceeds go to public education.
"How will he repay public schools after he raids their funds?" Mr. Voinis asked. "He has offered no proposals to replace the money he takes away from public schools."
Mr. Sharp disputed that, saying he has made clear that if elected he first wants to deal with the projected $ 5 billion deficit in the next state budget. After that, he said, he will talk about new programs, such as his college scholarship plan.
"After we fix this financial mess we're in, we're going to do this for middle-class kids in Texas," he said.
Mr. Dewhurst is pitching a plan to cap jury awards in certain civil lawsuits, which he said have fueled rising insurance costs.
"If there is one issue that might set me apart, it is my focus on driving down insurance rates," he said.
He wants to limit punitive, non-economic damages to $ 300,000 in lawsuits filed by homeowners against insurance companies and in medical malpractice lawsuits filed against physicians.
The other major part of his plan would set up state supervision of insurance rates - including auto and homeowners - until the market becomes more competitive.
The insurance commissioner would have to approve all rate increases.
"We are seeing way too many frivolous lawsuits," he said, claiming that 60 percent of all medical malpractice suits are thrown out of court.
"We can solve this problem by passing a fair tort reform act that protects the rights of people who are legitimately injured."
Critics say the idea would punish consumers and help big insurance companies.
Dan Lambe of Texas Watch, a consumer group, said the lawsuit restrictions "sound like an idea that would be on the wish list of insurance company executives."
"It is largely the insurance industry that has caused the crisis, and to reward them by limiting their responsibility to homeowners is one of the most ridiculous ideas I have heard," he said.
The Sharp campaign declined to comment on the Dewhurst proposal.
Mr. Dewhurst said there is a link between higher insurance rates and lawsuit judgments, such as the $ 32 million award won by an Austin-area family against Farmers Insurance Group.
The suit was filed after the family's home was devastated by toxic mold.
The same is true for medical malpractice insurance, where premiums have skyrocketed because of the large number of lawsuits filed against doctors, Mr. Dewhurst said.