A large black-and-white poster-sized 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 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 a governor who actually drove the roads of Montana, just like the rest of us, we wouldn’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 to 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 of 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 it's 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.