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State GOP lawmakers blast Daines over water compact

by CHAD SOKOL
Daily Inter Lake | December 29, 2020 12:00 AM

A historic water-rights agreement between the federal government and the Confederated Salish and Kootenai Tribes became law on Sunday, as President Donald Trump reluctantly signed a $2.3 trillion spending bill that included the pact as well as a $900 billion COVID-19 relief package.

In addition to resolving thousands of disputed water-rights claims, the CSKT agreement will provide the tribes nearly $2 billion to settle damages and support a major irrigation project, and return the 19,000-acre National Bison Range to tribal ownership. Montana Sens. Jon Tester and Steve Daines sponsored the settlement in Congress as the Montana Water Rights Protection Act. The Montana Legislature narrowly approved a similar agreement with the CSKT in 2015.

“After years of a lot of effort, our bipartisan bill that settles the century-long CSKT water dispute is now law,” Daines, a Republican, said in a statement Sunday. “This is a huge win for all Montanans. Our bill protects the water rights of all Montanans, saves taxpayer dollars, creates jobs, modernizes rural infrastructure, protects Montana agriculture and prevents costly litigation."

Trump signed the spending bill days after deriding it as "a disgrace" and demanding that Congress increase direct COVID-19 relief payments from $600 to $2,000, a proposal favored by Democrats but one that Republican lawmakers rejected.

The catchall legislation, which funds the government through September, also highlighted a rift among GOP officials in Montana. On Monday, 18 conservatives in the Legislature signed a statement criticizing Daines' sponsorship of the CSKT compact, calling it “a clear betrayal of our state and of President Trump."

The statement was signed by Missoula Rep. Brad Tschida, the Republican majority leader in the state House. The list also included eight current or incoming lawmakers from the Flathead Valley, including Sens. Al Olszewski, Bob Keenan, Dee Brown and Keith Regier; Reps. Carl Glimm, Derek Skees and Matt Regier; and Representative-elect Amy Regier.

They accused Daines of "deceptively" slipping the CSKT pact into the 5,600-page spending bill "at the last minute," leaving other members of Congress too little time to consider it, and acting "as a member of the D.C. swamp that voters rejected in 2016 and 2020." They also vowed to continue fighting the agreement in court.

In a phone call Monday, Tschida said the agreement cedes too much of the state's water supply to the tribes and will hurt farmers who rely on irrigation.

"We're talking about life and death issues for people in the state of Montana, and the fact that irrigators in the Flathead, the legislators in the Flathead, and the commissioners from Lake, Sanders and Flathead counties all oppose this," Tschida said. "Yet Sen. Daines was smarter than all of them and decided to go forward with this – [it] is a travesty, as far as I'm concerned."

WHILE THE compact was hailed as an achievement of bipartisan cooperation, Tschida faulted Daines for working with his Democratic colleague. Tester first introduced the compact in 2016; Daines reintroduced it this year and helped push it through the GOP-controlled Senate.

"When you have members on the other side of the aisle that are acknowledging and favorably responding to that decision, then I think there's something wrong with that, because the Democrats are coming out and applauding Sen. Daines for what he did," Tschida said. "So, to me, that smacks in the face of the citizens of the state of Montana that sent 67 Republicans to the Legislature this year."

Daines spokeswoman Katie Schoettler said that without the CSKT compact, "thousands of Montanans would have been forced into very expensive litigation and Montana's economy would’ve taken over a 1 billion dollar hit."

"This bill is a win for all Montanans," Schoettler said in an email. "Sen. Daines has been transparent with all Montana voters who overwhelmingly re-elected him about this bill, including working with folks on all sides of the issue to get feedback, and revised the bill to make it better for all Montanans."

WHILE THEY criticized Daines, the Republican legislators' statement made no mention of GOP Congressman Greg Gianforte, who will start his term as Montana's governor next week, though Gianforte also voted for the spending bill and celebrated the passage of the CSKT compact.

Tschida said the CSKT matter shouldn't affect how Republicans in the Legislature work with the incoming Gianforte administration.

"I don't think any one single issue defines how you work with a particular person," Tschida said. "This is one of those issues where I respectfully and strongly disagree with the governor because I think that this bill was chock full of pork."

Gianforte, during a Zoom call with reporters on Monday, credited Daines and Tester for their work on the agreement.

"If an agreement had not been reached, 72% of the water-rights holders in the state of Montana would find themselves in court, defending their underlying water rights," Gianforte said. "And the courts historically have held that without an agreement, the prior rights of the tribes supersede, which would, in effect, revoke the water rights of 72% of the water-rights holders in the state. That cannot be the outcome."

Gianforte added that the compact "satisfies the obligation to the tribe and protects the water rights of our farmers and ranchers across the state."

The passage of the CSKT pact also elicited a celebratory statement from Tim Fox, the state's Republican attorney general, who opposed a 2013 draft of the agreement before supporting the version that made it through the Legislature in 2015.

A group called Farmers and Ranchers of Montana also supported the agreement that made it through Congress.

"This agreement has been decades in the making, and stakeholders from every facet of our economy have weighed in during the creation of this bipartisan negotiated settlement,” Tom Beck, a co-chair of the group, said in a statement. “Sen. Daines, Sen. Tester, Congressman Gianforte and President Trump have successfully secured the future of Montana agriculture by putting partisan politics aside and doing what is best for water users across our state.”

Last week, CSKT Chairwoman Shelly Fyant said the Tribal Council could ratify the agreement or defer to a vote of the tribes' people.

"This will conclude a very long and difficult effort to quantify the water rights of the Séliš, Ql’ispé and Ksanka people," Fyant said in a statement. "This means we can avoid decades of acrimonious litigation on streams across much of Montana, and protect many streams with sufficient amounts of water to ensure fish can survive and Montana’s residents can recreate and fish as they have for generations."

Reporter Chad Sokol can be reached at 758-4434 or csokol@dailyinterlake.com

This story has been updated to remove the name of state Rep. Lola-Sheldon Galloway, vice chairwoman of the Montana Republican Party. On Wednesday, Sheldon-Galloway said a Republican aide had added her name to the letter criticizing Daines without her knowledge or approval. She said she takes no firm stance on the water compact.