Hal Harper, a longtime Helena legislator and former House speaker, is retiring as Gov. Brian Schweitzer’s chief policy adviser on June 30.
“I think it’s just the right time in my life,” Harper said Monday. I have a few other things I’d like to do, both personal and family.”
Harper, 61, said he leaves “just incredibly grateful for the opportunity the people of Montana of the state and grateful to Brian Schweitzer for the opportunity he’s given me.”
He said he’s especially proud of what the Schweitzer administration has been able to accomplish in terms of natural resource protection, stream access and maintaining good relationships with the American Indian nations, along with its emphasis on community corrections.
Harper was elected to the state House 13 times, the first time as a Republican in 1972. He was defeated in a 1974 Republican primary by Betty Babcock and later switched political parties. As a Democrat, Harper defeated Babcock in 1976. The two have remained friends throughout.
Harper was elected House speaker for the 1991 legislative session, and he twice served as Democratic floor leader.
Term limits ended his House career in 2000. He ran for secretary of state then and lost to Republican Bob Brown.
Harper began working for Schweitzer the day after he was elected governor in 2004.
“He’s been part of my brain trust even before I was elected,” Schweitzer said. “Hal just has so much institutional knowledge. We’ve been well served.”
Schweitzer said Harper’s service has been “unparalleled” and he’s grateful to have “such a knowledgeable and dedicated Montanan to work for this administration.” The governor said Harper had been a mentor to both him and his young staff.
As chief policy adviser, Harper said his job as been to try to stay on top of all different policy issues and work with department directors and policy people on the governor’s staff. He coordinated the administration’s testimony before the Legislature and communicated directly with legislators and legislative leaders.
“I’m proud to say that’s with legislators from both political parties,” Harper said.
Harper said he leaves with the hope the legislators can find ways to bridge the partisan gap that has separated them in recent sessions.
As a legislator, Harper said he sponsored laws that required legislative approval before Montana water could be exported as part of a coal slurry and to require registration and a lottery for permits to float the Smith River.
He was the sponsor of laws creating a state superfund, establishing the drought advisory committee and requiring political committees to be named in a way that accurately reflects who they are. He sponsored the bill creating the Treasure State Endowment and has been a longtime supporter of the state’s coal tax trust fund.
Harper said he doesn’t know if he’ll return to his previous career as a contractor.
“You never know what a guy’s got in him,” he said.
He said he doesn’t live far from the Capitol and might show up now and then to testify at the Legislature in the future as a private citizen.
“There is a strong role in the state of Montana for a private citizen, and I want to do my part to fill my role,” he said.
Schweitzer said he hasn’t decided yet how he will fill the job.