State Sen. Joseph Zarelli, a key budget negotiator for Republicans in Olympia, announced Friday that he won't seek re-election after 17 years in office.

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OLYMPIA — Sen. Joseph Zarelli, R-Ridgefield, Clark County, the ranking Republican on the Senate Ways and Means Committee, sent out a surprise announcement Friday afternoon that he won’t seek re-election.

Zarelli, who has spent 17 years in the Legislature, played a lead role in the controversial but successful GOP effort earlier this year to take control of the Senate budget with the help of three conservative Democrats.

That move ultimately led to a compromise budget negotiated between Republicans and Democrats, even though Democrats control the governor’s office and hold majorities in the House and Senate.

Zarelli in a phone interview on Friday said he struggled with the decision to leave up until the end.

When asked why he was leaving, Zarelli said it was just time to move on.

“I’ve watched people just kind of grow old there (in the Legislature) and not know what to do or when to leave. I just thought that looking at another four years, I’m aging myself, and there’s other things for me to look at,” said Zarelli, who is 50. “I don’t have anything I’m running to, per se.”

Senate Republican Leader Mike Hewitt, R-Walla Walla, noted that Zarelli was the go-to person on budget matters in his caucus and his departure will leave a big hole.

“Joe just decided it was time for him to look for something different. It’s been difficult the last few years to get through this process. It’s very grueling,” Hewitt said.

He learned only Thursday of Zarelli’s decision but said they’d been discussing the prospect for a while. Hewitt said Zarelli’s seatmate, Rep. Ann Rivers, R-La Center, has filed to run for the office. Ralph Schmidt of Camas has filed to run as a Democrat for the seat.

Hewitt said he would not be surprised if Republican gubernatorial candidate Rob McKenna brought Zarelli into his administration if he’s elected governor. Zarelli didn’t rule it out, but said, “That has nothing to do with anything right now.”

Zarelli is one of more than two-dozen lawmakers who’ve decided this year to leave the Legislature at the end of their terms. Democratic Senate Majority Leader Lisa Brown, D-Spokane, recently announced she also would not be running for re-election.

Andrew Garber: 360-236-8266 or agarber@seattletimes.com