Gov. Steve Bullock reviews fire statistics on board the governor's state-owned plane last August on his way to tour the Kootenai Complex wildfires.
Republican gubernatorial candidate Greg Gianforte on Wednesday accused Gov. Steve Bullock of misusing a Montana-owned airplane and said, if elected, he would sell it and spend the savings to expand computer science in high schools.
Gianforte, speaking during a news conference in Helena, said his Democratic opponent has used the plane to attend campaign events, a 2014 Paul McCartney concert and for short trips that could easily be made by car.
"I'm calling on the governor to sell the state airplane," Gianforte said. "Get out on the road like the rest of us. And if he won't sell the plane, if elected, I will."
Gianforte said the plane is symbolic of what he called the Bullock administration's misplaced priorities as the state faces revenue declines amid a downturn in the oil and coal industries. He acknowledged that the governor does need to fly to be able to serve a vast state that stretches 800 miles from Libby to Ekalaka, but said "there are other state aircraft and there are also commercial providers available."
"That money can be better used," Gianforte said. "I will allocate it to put computer science in every high school in the state and we'll probably have money left over to pay for some desperately needed infrastructure, as well."
Bullock came under criticism after The Associated Press reported in February that he attended a fundraiser after flying to Billings for two official business items: a media interview and making sandwiches with middle school students. Republicans renewed their criticism after flight logs showed the state plane flew to Missoula the day of the McCartney concert, which Bullock attended.
Bullock has previously said that campaign activities are secondary events to trips made for state business, and he has since reimbursed the state for time the pilots spent waiting while he attended those events. His office has said Bullock had meetings in Missoula prior to the McCartney concert.
The Beechcraft King Air twin turboprop was purchased in 1989, when Republican Stan Stephens was governor. Governors as far back as the 1960s have used state-owned aircraft to efficiently visit communities, hear the people's concerns and use their input to make responsible decisions, Bullock spokeswoman Ronja Abel said.
"When a wildfire threatens lives and property, or when a parasite kills thousands of fish in the Yellowstone River, Governor Bullock believes it's the responsibility of any governor to see concerns firsthand and to hear from folks on the front lines," Abel said in a statement.
Discontinuing use of the plane would pose a significant challenge for future governors to hear directly from the people they serve, Abel said.
Jason Pitt, a spokesman for the Bullock campaign and the Montana Democratic Party, called Gianforte's push to sell the plane a political stunt.
Gianforte was backed by Republican state Reps. Ryan Osmundson and Rep. Brad Tschida, who plan to introduce a bill to prohibit the use of the plane for campaigning.
Lawmakers analyzed 147 flights taken by the governor and found that 72 of them were to destinations less than 100 miles away, Tschida said.
The state would save an estimated $600,000 every two years by discontinuing the governor's use of the plane and by allocating more money for commercial flights and the state's motor pool, he added.
Bullock flew on Wednesday to Deer Lodge, about 50 miles from Helena, and was not immediately available for comment. Abel said he was discussing resource conservation in the Upper Clark Fork River Basin and visiting the Montana State Prison.
Republican gubernatorial candidate Greg Gianforte stands in front of a poster-sized "classified ad" for the Montana state airplane. Gianforte says he'll sell the state plane if elected.
A large black and white poster size classified ad selling a twin-engine plane stood as a prop on the Capitol steps Wednesday. The ad said the plane runs great, it was used in the past for mainly short flights and it’s a great party plane — for sale at $2 million or best offer.
Next to the ad, behind a wooden podium, Republican candidate for Governor Greg Gianforte announced what his campaign touted as a major policy proposal.
"I’m calling on the governor to sell the state airplane. Get out on the road like the rest of us. If he won’t sell the plane, when elected. I will," Gianforte said.
The Republican party has attacked incumbent Democratic Governor Steve Bullock on his use of the plane throughout this election season.
In March, Bullock reimbursed the state over $2,600 dollars for his use of the state-owned plane while campaigning.
Gianforte says Bullock’s use of the plane is an abuse of taxpayer funds.
"Maybe if we had Governor who actually drove the roads of Montana, just like the rest of us, we won’t have seen infrastructure blocked in 2013 and 2015 by his vetoes. So, here’s the big picture. The current Governor is flying high, using a state owned aircraft to campaign and attend rock concerts. And yet, Montana revenues are in a nose dive. Our economy is in decline and Colstrip is slated to be closed."
Gianforte says he’ll use the money saved by selling the plane to boost computer science programs in schools and fund infrastructure programs.
Republican Representative from Missoula Brad Tschida sat on the 2015 House Appropriations committee. He says the state could save about $300,000 a year by stopping the governor’s use of the plane and instead adding funding for commercial flights and the state's motor pool.
"And when we went through the various budget items we found that there was abuse of the plane in 2015. There had been a 147 flights if I remember correctly, 72 of them were flights of less than 100 miles. It takes longer for the plane to warm up than it would have taken to get in a car for the state motor pool and drive to Butte."
The 1979 Beechcraft King Air the governor uses for travel was purchased in the late 80s. Governors have used planes to commute around the state since the 1960s.
According to the Governor’s Office, Bullock spends an average 191 hours on the state plane a year, and since 1981 Governors average 225 hours in flight a year.
Bullock’s campaign was not available, but spokesperson Jason Pitt sent Montana Public Radio an audio clip of a prepared statement.
"This is just another weird political stunt from an out-of-state multimillionaire who actually has his own personal plane."
Lee Banville, a political writer and journalism professor at the University of Montana says Wednesday’s press conference ramped up an ongoing attack. He says the Gianforte campaign has gone from criticizing Bullock’s use of the plane to saying there shouldn’t be a state plane at all.
"And is it a fair argument? You can certainly make that argument, but I think that both Republicans and Democrats have found it useful to be able to move around the state quickly. And so we have seen a bipartisan buying-into the idea that you will have a plane available to move from point A to point B when Montana is as big as it is.”
Banville says all election stories are going to get more attention the closer we get to November. And although this story has cropped up in the past, it might get more traction this time around.
“I do think that this will get more attention because of that. Because its Greg Gianforte getting up and saying 'I’m going to sell this plane, I think the governor should sell this plane. And it's time to stop wasting the taxpayers money.' It's going to have a different impact than a press aid trying to plant a story with journalists, which is kinda how they were pushing this story before."
Greg Gianforte says there are occasions when the Governor needs to fly, but he doesn’t think a plane needs to be available all the time for a Governor to conduct state business.
A statement from the governor's office said they would not consider selling the plane because quote “Montanans expect the governor they elected to efficiently visit their communities, to hear their concerns and to use their input to make responsible decisions.”
Fifteen minutes after Gianforte kicked off his press conference on the capitol steps, Governor Steve Bullock was on board the state plane. He flew from Helena to Deer Lodge, about fifty miles away. A thirty minute round trip in the air.