HELENA – At 7 a.m. Thursday morning, six lawmakers who helped craft the budget deal they hoped would end the 2015 Legislature rolled out the almost-final product – and then voted on it with little or no discussion.

Most details of the budget-and-infrastructure package had been finalized and printed just hours before, at late-night sessions Wednesday among legislative staff, lawmakers and the Bullock administration.

Their bipartisan hope was to reach a bargain that Democratic Gov. Steve Bullock would accept and then present to key committees and the Republican-controlled House and Senate, which would approve the pieces and wrap up the 2015 Legislature a week early.

“This was a unique experience,” said Sen. Bob Keenan, R-Bigfork, just before the House-Senate conference committee’s 7 a.m. vote folded parts of the deal into the session’s major budget bill. “Shuttle diplomacy got us to this point.”

Yet within 48 hours, part of the deal foundered, as a core of conservative House Republicans refused to go along, saying Friday and Saturday the $150 million infrastructure bill that was part of the package was no compromise.

House Speaker Austin Knudsen, R-Culbertson, one of the people who helped put the deal together, said Saturday he still supported it. But he also suggested the nature of the final-day talks might have put some people off.

“I think maybe some of them felt that this thing came at them too fast,” he said. “I think there are a lot of hard feelings in the (House Republican) caucus right now. … I can appreciate how they feel that way.”

Those involved with the talks, or “shuttle diplomacy,” during the past two weeks said it’s not unusual, and that every legislature has core members who put together the final deal on the budget, and related bills.

They also defended it as a necessity, to be able to get together in small groups and talk frankly about what people on each side will or won’t accept.

“Honest, frank discussion with the Senate, the House and the governor is the way that gets us to a product that people can understand in a timely manner,” said Sen. Jim Keane, D-Butte, a member of the House-Senate conference committee on the budget bill and who took part in the talks. “The people of Montana want us to work together and have a product that benefits the citizens of Montana, and that’s what we’re trying to do here.”

Bullock administration officials wouldn’t talk in detail about the meetings, issuing only a statement saying the budget and infrastructure bills have had “countless hours of public hearings and discussions.”

***

The final talks began in earnest a little more than a week ago, after the session’s major budget bill, House Bill 2, was sent to the conference committee.

A collection of key lawmakers, including top leaders and budget conferees, met with Bullock’s budget director, Dan Villa, and the governor’s deputy chief of staff, Ali Bovingdon.

While Bullock didn’t attend the meetings, he kept in touch with staff and key lawmakers, his office said. House Minority Leader Chuck Hunter, D-Helena, said he had several direct conversations with Bullock even on last Monday, the day the governor ran in the Boston Marathon.

The issues revolved around what Bullock wanted to insert back into the budget bill, that had been cut by the Legislature, and finding enough cash to help finance the infrastructure bill.

Knudsen said a major sticking point last week was Bullock’s insistence that his “Early Edge” preschool program get funded and placed back into the budget.

Republicans – and even some Democrats – said it wasn’t going to happen.

“When they wouldn’t come off of that plan, we walked away,” Knudsen said Friday. “Our message was, we’re not willing to further negotiate if it involves fully funding the governor’s pre-K plan. As you can see, we did not fund it.”

But the infrastructure bill proved to be the most complicated and difficult task on which to reach agreement.

Keenan, the vice-chair of the Senate Finance and Claims Committee, said it took “hours and hours of back-and-forth to get the cash, the bonding and the local-government loans into that package.”

Keenan has a picture on his smart phone of the white board where they drew up the options, showing a morass of arrows, numbers and columns.

Sen. Llew Jones, R-Conrad, who coordinated much of the talks, said they strove to cut cash out of the budget bill so it could end up in the infrastructure bill, and reduce the latter bill’s borrowing, which conservatives don’t like.

The bargainers rolled out the final product early Thursday morning, ultimately stuffing it into HB2 and Senate Bill 416, the infrastructure bill, in committees.

***

When asked how the public had an opportunity to be involved, or understand the details, Jones said the “final product must be assembled in public,” and that any lobbyist or interested group could find out what was being discussed. He also noted that the conference committee on HB2 met twice on Thursday, first at 7 a.m., and then again in the afternoon, to make any adjustments in reaction to the first set of amendments.

Sen. Eric Moore, R-Miles City, who took part in some of the talks, said he doesn’t see how the final budget deals can be hammered out without closely-held talks.

“If the people of Montana want the two (political) parties to work together, it takes communication,” he said. “If we’re going to find that common ground, we can’t do that with sound bites through the press.”

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