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Gov. Steve Bullock makes sandwiches

Gov. Steve Bullock makes peanut butter and jelly sandwiches with members of the Riverside Builders Club, including Alyssa Munson, left, and Amanda Steele, right, on Feb. 10.

Republican lawmakers say Gov. Steve Bullock has "shortchanged" taxpayers in his reimbursement for campaign-related use of the state airplane.

In a letter to the Democratic governor Tuesday, 40 Republican legislators asked Bullock to show the math behind his $2,672 reimbursement to the state for 21 plane trips involving not only official government business, but also campaign functions.

"We believe Montanans have been shortchanged to the amount of tens of thousands of dollars," wrote Rep. Brad Tschida, R-Missoula, author of the request.

Tschida raised the issue of the governor's flights three weeks ago at a time when the Bullock was not reimbursing the state.

After reviewing the reimbursement amount Bullock submitted, Tschida told The Gazette that the estimate seemed too low, given the governor's plane expenses revealed in the 2015 Legislature.

"I don't see it," Tschida said of the governor's reimbursement, "not flying a plane that uses that kind of fuel and takes that kind of maintenance and the cost of the pilots flying it."

During the 2015 Legislature, the Government Affairs subcommittee determined the hourly cost of the plane to be $1,650, based on information from the governor's office.

At issue were a handful of campaign fundraisers branded as “Women for Bullock” events that capped state business flights to Montana communities in March and February.

Criticism of the flights surfaced on social media after it was mentioned in a Feb. 10 Associated Press report that Bullock, a Democrat, was unavailable for comment because he was in Billings making peanut butter sandwiches for the homeless and attending a campaign fundraiser. Bullock had flown to Billings for those events, plus a TV interview and a meeting with a union official.

Bullock announced March 18 that, as a policy, he would reimburse the state for flights dating back to April 29, 2014, as well as future flights. The compensation was based on pilot time.

Tuesday, the governor's office referred all questions to his re-election campaign. Jason Pitt, campaign spokesman, said Bullock's team had questions about an airplane used by Republican candidate for governor Greg Gianforte.

The plane used by Gianforte for campaign trips was registered to the nonprofit Bozeman Technology Incubator Inc., whose purpose was to provide mentoring for high-tech and manufacturing purposes.

That plane is not owned by the government, Pitt acknowledged, but there are limits under federal tax law for nonprofits concerning campaigning.

"They're talking about improper use of a plane for campaign reasons, and we're talking about using a plane for campaign purposes," Pitt said.

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Pitt's source for the Bozeman Technology Incubator being a non-profit company was a description of the company on the Bozeman Chamber of Commerce website.

That description is false, said Aaron Flint, spokesman for the Gianforte campaign. The Bozeman Technology Incubator Inc. isn't a non-profit company and is registered for general business with Montana's secretary of state.

The issue with Bullock's use of a state plane for campaigning is rooted in state political law, which states 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."

"On the rare occasion that Greg and Susan Gianforte have used an airplane to travel to or from campaign events, they have paid for the travel out of their own checking accounts," said Flint.

Those travel expenses are listed on Gianforte's campaign reports, Flint said.

"And now, even after being caught red-handed and admitting to wrongdoing, the governor is trying to shortchange the taxpayers," Flint said. "Rather than being held accountable, the Bullock campaign is desperately trying to divert attention."

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Politics and agriculture reporter for The Billings Gazette.