Tough but fair-minded approach will be missed

The spin that comes out of Olympia can be enough to make you reach for the Dramamine. So a legislator who develops political sea legs, who refuses to be swayed by the shifting currents of polls and popularity, is one to be treasured.

And when such a lawmaker retires, it’s a loss that’s felt on both sides of the aisle.

Such is the case with Rep. Barry Sehlin (R-Oak Harbor), who this month finished up his final legislative session. At 61, the Navy and lawmaking veteran is changing course, looking forward to spending time traveling with his wife.

He will be missed.

In a relatively short tenure, the former commander of the Whidbey Island Naval Air Station became highly respected by Republicans and Democrats alike for his knowledgeable, plain-speaking way of doing business. As the ranking minority member of the Appropriations Committee, Sehlin was the GOP’s top budget negotiator in the House. In that role, he was forever reminding his colleagues that the state treasury isn’t bottomless, and that every good idea carries a price tag.

That might sound simple, but in the stormy world of politics, it’s not.

"Politically, it’s very difficult to hold the line," Sehlin said of the budget process, drawing a recent example. "Early on (before this year’s session), the impression was given that the hard times were over. It’s simply not true, and that made it harder for the public to understand why they couldn’t get what they wanted."

It’s not that Sehlin wouldn’t like to spend more on education and health care for the poor. But with a budget shortfall of nearly $1 billion anticipated in the next biennium, he knew that spending more this year would only make that problem worse, and the choices tougher. Despite his warnings, the final budget contains around $100 million in new discretionary spending for this year, which means an increase of $200 million in the next two-year budget.

Sehlin’s Democratic counterpart on the Appropriations Committee, Helen Sommers of Seattle, said she’ll miss his keen analytical skills and sense of fairness. Sommers and Sehlin didn’t often agree on issues, but they respect each other.

And while politics have become more polarized in public, Sehlin paints a surprisingly collegial picture of the work that goes on behind the scenes. He wishes the public and the media had a way to see that.

We hope it continues without him. But we’ll have the Dramamine on hand, just in case.

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