HELENA — 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.
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