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PARKER: Off to the races — again

You may have missed the starting shot, but the midterm races officially began last week with the Texas primaries. Today, voters in Pennsylvania's 18th Congressional District head to the polls for a special election to fill the seat left vacant by Republican Tim Murphy.

At the risk of sounding hyperbolic, 2018 promises to be as significant, if not more so given the stakes, as 2010 when Republicans wrested the House of Representatives from Democrats amid tea party turbulence and early chants of "repeal and replace."

Whether November will produce a blue wave crashing down on a crimson tide — or an estrogen rout of the testosterone swamp — remains to be seen. But early signs suggest that Republicans will have to scratch and fight to keep their dwindling majorities (41 have left or aren't seeking re-election) in the House and Senate.

Even, perhaps, in Texas.

Republican voters, who are usually more attentive to primaries than Democrats, did outperform in turnout there — 1.5 million to just 1 million. One clear Democratic winner was three-term Rep. Beto O'Rourke, a youngish (45), Kennedy-esque liberal who won a three-way Senate primary to face Republican incumbent Ted Cruz in the fall.

Cruz is up for re-election following a dramatic first-term in Washington, which has included the 2013 government shutdown that he essentially engineered (even on the House side) and, memorably, a 21-hour floor speech against Obamacare that detoured into a reading of "Green Eggs and Ham." Cruz's attachment to childlike expression seems stable. In an attempt to deflate O'Rourke's primary victory, Cruz released a country-song radio ad that croons:

I remember reading stories liberal Robert wanted to fit in, So he changed his name to Beto and hid it with a grin.

Cruz's insinuation that O'Rourke changed his name to appeal to Latino voters is true only if you count the Democrat's toddler years as predictive of future shape-shifting. Apparently, Beto, short for Roberto, became his nickname when, as a small child, he lived among mostly Latino neighbors in El Paso. To put an end to this silliness, O'Rourke produced a photo of himself as a tyke wearing a sweater emblazoned with "Beto." One would think Cruz would be more sympathetic to a child just trying to fit in, especially since he tweaked his own given middle name, Edward, to become Ted.

If this were a race between Robert O'Rourke and Rafael Cruz, who knows?

The upcoming Pennsylvania race is a sorta sordid affair, thanks to the previous occupant of the seat in play. Murphy, a professed abortion opponent seemed to suggest that a woman with whom he'd had an affair should seek an abortion when the two thought she might be pregnant. Incensed when she spotted a March for Life posting on his public Facebook account, she texted him: "And you have zero issue posting your pro-life stance all over the place when you had no issue asking me to abort our unborn child just last week ..."

If Republicans were looking for an undramatic candidate to replace him, they succeeded with the lackluster Rick Saccone, whose campaign has failed to bestir enthusiasm and even prompted a scolding from GOP leadership. The potential embarrassment of losing in a district Donald Trump won by 20 percentage points is bad enough. Worse would be the conclusion that Trump's support is a deficit rather than a plus, as was the case in Alabama's special Senate election last year when Roy Moore lost to Democrat Doug Jones.

Meanwhile, Saccone's Democratic opponent, Conor Lamb, could have significant crossover appeal. An Ivy League-educated Marine veteran and former prosecutor, Lamb reportedly likes shooting machine guns and has suggested that he wouldn't support Nancy Pelosi as House speaker should Democrats win control in November.

In 2010, Republicans hailed their triumphant sweep as a referendum on President Obama and the Affordable Care Act. Today's election may not foretell the future — and the Lamb/Saccone match is, indeed, a special circumstance — but any Republican loss now would give Democrats a lift and create momentum for races to come.

As Trump marches on to his own very-special drummer, lending status to North Korean leader Kim Jong Un by agreeing to meet with him and slapping allies with punitive tariffs, it couldn't come at a better time.

CARROLL: A new time for the Forest Service

The fog in the valley today looks eerily like the smoke of summer wildfires. Can’t see more than half a mile. It’s not choking and it’s not dangerous to breathe, but it veils the sun, just like smoke.

After the longest fire year in memory, most wildland firefighters didn’t expect a winter crisis in confidence, and they certainly didn’t expect to greeting a new chief.

The pressure of an already high-pressure job just got tougher, and the firefighters in the U.S. Forest Service lost their chief last week. I don’t know the details, but his interim replacement is a woman with lots of state-level forestry experience and six years in the U.S. Forest Service. It’s not very long, but she’s paid her dues.

Vickie Christiansen has a big job. Somehow, she has to tackle the difficult topic of sexual harassment and equality among men and women in the ranks while still keeping focus on the National Forest system, the reason we have a Forest Service. Her job is taking care of public forests and serving all of us because, after all, we own 192 million acres. It’s the only wild land most of us will ever own. It’s precious.

Equally precious are the 35,000 employees who work for the Big Green Machine. Chief Christiansen is now the boss of what was once the superstar of federal agencies. Herbert Kaufman’s "The Forest Ranger: A Study in Administrative Behavior" is a timeless look at the heart of the agency, written almost 60 years ago. Some things have changed. Much remains the same. The new chief would be well-served to read it and think about what it means.

Kaufman wrote that the leaders of the Forest Service were tough professionals, lean and sober, with the right kind of education to manage natural resources and a willingness to conform to policies set in Washington, D.C., but implemented far away in remote field locations.

They would have to be willing to move to gain experience, to plow new ground, and to champion the cause of conservation. He didn’t say anything about a safe and harassment free workplace. That’s a new requirement and a good one.

Like U.S. Marines, we hire firefighters for certain characteristics that allow them to survive and thrive in the heat of battle. Upper body strength is good, but it’s not the only thing. Working together in common cause on a crew is good, and it’s the way fire line gets built — one tool swing at a time.

There’s no room for bullying and intimidation. But there are bullies and people who use intimidation in the fire ranks. There’s no room for creating such a toxic environment that people just give up and quit because it’s easier to stop than to keep going. But that environment exists in the fire ranks, here and there.

Ignorance is no excuse. Neither is turning the other way when bad things happen. So, the chief is walking into a brave new world, one well-known to her but alien. She is a stranger in a strange land where the outlines are familiar but the forms are changing.

Men in the fire ranks are stepping forward to help hold the line against harassment and cronyism and to confront people who don’t think women belong in fire. There’s a revolution in the ranks, and it’s been a long time coming.

The first pregnant forest ranger is gone but the struggles she faced are still real. The #MeToo movement washing away the old world has reached the fire ranks. Kaufman’s forest rangers are moving forward, men and women.

GOOD, BAD & UGLY: February a good month for the area

GOOD: OK, it’s been a long, cold winter, but spring is just around the corner. And, besides, not all the news has been bad this winter. According to the National Weather Service, it was the snowiest February in 17 years. Downtown Rapid City received nearly 20 inches of snow thanks to a 10-inch storm on President’s Day weekend. The last time the city saw this much snow in February was in 2001 when the Weather Service reported 22 inches. The average for the month is 7.4 inches.  The Northern Hills, meanwhile, has seen even more snow this winter. The last two years have been unusually dry in western South Dakota, which we were reminded of when the Legion Lake Fire exploded in December in the Southern Hills. Let’s hope the precipitation that occurred in February is a sign of things to come in 2018.

BAD: Rather than take action in the wake of the Parkland, Fla., high school mass shooting, the Trump Administration has decided to employ an age-old government tactic: create a commission to study the problem. In doing so, it gives the appearance that government is taking action while actually kicking the can down the road. After the most recent school mass murder, President Trump initially embraced the idea of raising the age of buying an assault rifle from 18 to 21, which, of course, the National Rifle Association opposes. Now, even that modest proposal seems in doubt. In making the announcement, Trump said there is apparently little political will among lawmakers for the age change. The fact that Congress won’t even discuss or vote on such a proposal — which the legislators in Florida did — speaks volumes about the lack of political courage in the nation’s capital.

UGLY: South Dakota legislative leaders have once again shown their disdain for processes that just might hold them accountable. Last week, Senate Majority Leader Blake Curd of Sioux Falls said he decided not to schedule a meeting for a panel established last year that was supposed to examine lawmakers’ conduct, which had been under scrutiny after reports of sexual harassment and sexual misconduct in the Legislature that included one lawmaker admitting to having sex with two interns. Curd, an orthopedic surgeon, dismissed the review panel’s mission as unnecessary.  "Just because we have a committee doesn't mean we have to have a hearing, right? It doesn't. There's no requirement in statute that we meet," he told the Associated Press. If that is the case, why did lawmakers approve of establishing the review panel in the first place?

DAUGAARD: Another good year for state lawmakers

The Legislature has concluded another productive year in Pierre.

Most importantly, our state continued its streak, going back to statehood, of a balanced budget. We used ongoing revenue streams to fund ongoing expenses, and one-time revenues for one-time purposes. We maintain a budget reserve fund equal to 10 percent of expenditures. It is for this reason that our state has earned and maintained a AAA bond rating, which speaks to our fiscal strength.

When I proposed a state budget in December, revenue growth was very slow. For that reason, I was not able to propose inflationary increases for education, Medicaid providers, or state employee salaries. Fortunately, our state’s economy has ticked upward in the last three months, so the state budget we passed will include increases for all of those recipients. We were also able to allocate dollars to the state employee health plan, to keep employee costs as low as possible.

The budget includes funding to continue the dual credit program for high school students, to contribute toward a new Precision Ag facility at SDSU and a health education building at Lake Area Tech, and to construct a state veterans cemetery near Sioux Falls. The Building South Dakota economic development also received a reliable, long-term revenue source.

This year, the legislature passed numerous bills to modernize our state’s alcohol industry. The emerging micro-brewing industry will be able to expand and to sell their products to bars and consumers. Farm wineries gained greater flexibility to operate as well. For the first time in decades, the entire alcohol title was rewritten, increasing clarity and easing the regulatory burden.

We also recognized that the open waters compromise, which the legislature passed last summer in a special session, is working, and we passed legislation to make the compromise permanent.

Bills were also brought to strengthen our ties to our tribes. Legislation was passed allowing tribal governments to extradite their members back from county jails, if they choose. We also passed legislation recognizing the right of tribal members to wear traditional regalia, such as an eagle feather, at high school graduations.

I first came to Pierre for the legislative session in 1997 when I was first elected a state senator. I spent six years as a senator, eight years as lieutenant governor, and now eight years as governor. Over those 22 sessions, I have served with hundreds of good people – men and women, Republicans and Democrats, farmers, teachers, nurses and attorneys.

South Dakota’s legislators are not career politicians. They come to Pierre for a few weeks to serve their friends and neighbors, and then they return home to live amongst the people they serve. In the coming days, if you happen to see one of your legislators, please say thank you for a job well done.