BILLINGS -- Montana Gov. Steve Bullock’s use of a state plane for campaigning continues, according to election finance reports in which his campaign paid the state $1,155 for airfare.
Campaign finance reports filled Monday by the Bullock Campaign with the Commissioner of Political Practices, didn’t go into detail about the expenses covered.
But an invoice from the Office of the Governor included nine flights, for which the state requested Bullock’s campaign pay for pilot salaries and benefits associated with waiting for Bullock, a Democrat, to return from non-government events, such as fundraising. The invoice listed 15½ hours of pilot time, and the dates in which the hours were incurred.
The governor’s office didn’t disclose what, if any, official purpose the flight had, or where the government airplane was flown, or the campaign events for which the pilot’s shift was extended.
Tim Crowe, Bullock’s communications director, said the invoice is intended to capture costs, not destinations, which have no bearing on what the campaign owes the state.
By combining flight tracking data for the state’s Beechcraft King Air with known Bullock campaign events, The Gazette was able to confirm that most, but not all, of Bullock’s campaign-related flights were included in the state’s bill to the governor’s re-election campaign.
Included in the bill were several "Birthday Party for Bullock" events in April that involved flights to communities where the governor held campaign fundraisers before leaving town. One birthday party not on the list took place after business hours at the Billings Depot, where attendees were encouraged to wish the governor happy 50th birthday. Tickets were $50 to $1,320 depending on level of support.
Two fundraising events in July also were not included. Crowe said the July campaign events involving the state plane would be included in a future report.
Crowe said the April 6 event in Billings was not included with the other birthday party fundraisers because no additional cost to the taxpayer was found.
“Neither of the salaried pilots who flew on the sixth were in overtime status for the flight and didn’t require reimbursement,” Crowe said in an email.
The governor’s use of the plane for campaigning has angered Republican legislators.
“Is it the citizens of Montana’s responsibility to provide transportation to Steve Bullock while he campaigns?” said Rep. Ryan Osmundson, R-Buffalo. “I don’t think he should be campaigning on our tax dollars.”
Osmundson and fellow Republicans balked at Bullock’s plane use during the 2015 Legislature, when the central Montana farmer was chairman of the Joint General Government subcommittee.
Osmundson noted that Bullock was using the plane to fly from Helena to Butte, two communities that are 67 miles apart by car. The state plane cost $1,650 an hour to operate, said Osmundson, who reasoned taxpayers would be better off if Bullock drove.
In February, a public records request by The Billings Gazette revealed that the governor was piggybacking campaign fundraisers onto business trips in which a state plane was used. State political law says that with few exceptions "a public officer or public employee may not use public time, facilities, equipment, supplies, personnel, or funds to solicit support for or opposition to any political committee, the nomination or election of any person to public office, or the passage of a ballot issue."
Bullock, who previously served as Montana’s attorney general, reviewed state law and concluded his campaign should have paid for plane costs associated with campaigning. The campaign then paid the state $2,672 for portions of 21 state business trips that also involved campaign functions.
Republicans quickly accused Bullock of shortchanging the state. Arguing the average repayment price of $127.23 a flight was too low, they promised in the next Legislature to put new restrictions on state plane use