HELENA — Three state lawmakers say they are going to propose a bill in the 2017 Legislature to change how a state-owned plane can be used.
Sen. Mark Blasdel, R-Kalispell, and Reps. Ryan Osmundson, R-Buffalo, and Brad Tschida, R-Missoula, said the bill will prohibit use of the state plane for traveling to state events within 120 miles of Helena, except in an emergency.
The bill would also prohibit the use of a state plane when official and campaign events fall on the same trip.
The move comes after Republicans have criticized Gov. Steve Bullock's use of the state-owned plane. Rep. Brad Tschida, R-Missoula, accused Bullock of “holding campaign events at taxpayer expense” in a guest opinion ran in The Missoulian newspaper.
Over the years, Democrats and Republicans have traded jabs over use of the state plane. Last legislative session, a budget subcommittee on a partisan vote stripped away money used to pay for the plane temporarily. Tschida made the motion, arguing too many flights were made to places like Butte, Great Falls and Missoula. Bullock's staff has said the plane is necessary for travel in a large state and to keep the governor from spending all his time getting from place to place.
This campaign season, he has criticized flights Bullock made to state events in Billings, Missoula and Bozeman and then attended campaign events after.
Bullock’s legal advisors have said there was nothing wrong with the governor’s use of the plane.
Bullock spokeswoman Ronja Abel said Thursday: "Gov. Bullock uses the state plane less on average than any previous governor. It is a shame these legislators are already more focused on playing politics with plane policy than they are on job creation policy."
However, the governor released a new policy last month to allow for reimbursement.
The policy the governor adopted and made retroactive to the start of his term will refund the state, though the release said increased costs to the state are very rare due to the fixed costs associated with the trips.
The governor has paid the state back for costs from 21 trips. The state plane costs $500 an hour to operate, according to a Bullock spokeswoman. That works out to Bullock paying back an average of $127.23 per trip.
On Friday the Republican Governors Association will release its first ad in the Montana governor's race. The ad focuses on Bullock's use of the state plane.
The six-figure ad buy will run in four markets across the state.
“Suffering from a severe lack of credibility and transparency, Gov. Steve Bullock’s latest attempt to deceive voters has created a crisis of leadership in Montana,” said RGA communications director Jon Thompson. “After getting caught using the state plane for campaign travel more than 20 times — spending precious taxpayer dollars for political purposes — Bullock has refused to release his schedule, hiding the truth from Montanans. Steve Bullock is just another liberal politician covering up a scandal.”
Montana Democratic Party spokesman Jason Pitt questioned if the lawmakers who promised the legislation knew about the ad buy.
"We expect this is the first of many dishonest attacks from a Washington, D.C. front group funded by dark money kingpin Greg Gianforte. It's hard to trust Gianforte with anything since he is ducking questions on discrimination laws, hiding his history of donating millions to out-of-the-mainstream interest groups, and now was caught lying about talking to Facebook.
Pitt said Bullock has used the plane less on average than any other governor.
Blasdel, Osmundson and Tschida released the following statements:
Sen. Mark Blasdel: “This bill puts an end to any governor’s ability to abuse taxpayer dollars — it’s simply wrong to take advantage of a State resource to raise money for your campaign.”
Rep. Osmundson: “As a pilot, I’m deeply bothered by Bullock’s misuse of the State plane, flying such short distances that should be driven and shortchanging taxpayers by refusing to pay for the full costs of the state plane.”
Rep. Tschida: “There’s a level of arrogance demonstrated by our Governor, who only reimbursed taxpayers because he got caught and then continues to fly on the taxpayers’ dime to these fundraisers, as if nothing were wrong.”