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The top Republican budget writer in the state Senate is resigning his seat this week.

Earlier this month, state Sen. Joe Zarelli of Ridgefield announced he wouldn't run for re-election, but it was assumed he would finish out his term, which expires in December. However, on Tuesday Zarelli announced that Thursday will be his last day.

He says it was time for him to "start focusing on where I'm going next and to begin that journey."

Zarelli led a budget revolt in the state Senate this year that helped drive an overhaul in some state policies, such as curtailing early retirement benefits and requiring new rules for balanced budgets.

Zarelli's resignation will set in motion an appointment process to pick someone to replace him. County Republicans in the 18th Legislative District will recommend three names to county commissioners, who will ultimately appoint a replacement to the Senate to fill out the rest of Zarelli's term.

The 18th District boundaries now include parts of Cowlitz County, but on Jan. 1 the district will shrink and be contained only within Clark County. Cowlitz County Commission Chairman George Raiter, though, said his understanding is that Cowlitz officials will be involved in naming someone to replace Zarelli.

Whomever is named will serve until Dec. 6. Under the state constitution, if a state lawmaker resigns before his term is up, the winner in the general election is sworn in once the election is certified on Dec. 6.

State Rep. Ann Rivers, R-La Center, is now campaigning to replace Zarelli, as is Democratic candidate Ralph Schmidt.

Zarelli told The Columbian newspaper in Vancouver on Tuesday that Rivers is the obvious choice for the interim appointment. Choosing someone else to fill the position for just a few months "would make no sense, and it wouldn't serve the constituents well," Zarelli said.

Any appointee besides Rivers could not run for re-election because the deadline to file for candidacy has passed. However, if Rivers is selected, commissioner would have to replace her in the 18th District House seat. Republican Battle Ground City Councilman Adrian Cortes and Clark County Republican Party Chairman Brandon Vick are vying for that position.

Rivers said Zarelli's decision to leave office early came as a surprise.

Once Zarelli leaves Thursday, the county commissioners have 60 days to pick someone. If commissioners cannot reach a decision within the 60-day window, the governor then has 30 days to make the appointment.

Zarelli, 50, has represented the 18th District for the past 17 years, and he has been the Senate Republican's budget leader since 2004.

The Columbian and The Associated Press contributed to this report.

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