Last chance for state to assist with Public Law 280
| December 18, 2022 12:00 AM
Lake County has finally reached its breaking point.
Commissioners last week unanimously approved a resolution of intent to withdraw from its Public Law 280 agreement with the state — and the timing couldn’t be more intentional.
Session after session, the state Legislature has ignored Lake County’s request for financial assistance in its enforcement of the long-standing deal that guides law enforcement on the Flathead Reservation. The county commissioners even sued the state in July in an attempt to recoup the millions of dollars they believe the county is owed for its part in upholding Public Law 280. The state has asked for that suit to be dismissed.
Now, with just days to go before the 2023 legislative session begins, Lake County has finally put all its cards on the table.
Last week, the commissioners expressed their intention to pull out of the agreement once and for all if the state won’t pay its fair share. A public hearing on the commissioners’ resolution is planned for Jan. 3, and if approved, the county could be fully withdrawn from Public Law 280 by July.
“We want the Legislature to understand that we want the question [of who is responsible for paying for Public Law 280] answered before we complete our budget for the next fiscal year,” Commissioner Gale Decker said of the resolution.
Congress enacted Public Law 280 in 1953 to transfer criminal jurisdiction over Native Americans to several states from the federal government. The Montana Legislature authorized such jurisdiction in 1963, and the Confederated Salish and Kootenai Tribes passed an ordinance in 1965 that agreed to accept Public Law 280. The Flathead Reservation is the only tribal reservation in Montana under such jurisdiction.
Fiscal analysis indicates Lake County spends upward of $4 million a year to enforce Public Law 280 on the reservation — money that is straining other county resources and taxpayers.
Commissioners say that Gov. Greg Gianforte has been unresponsive in their correspondence on a potential reimbursement deal, and are quick to point out Montana’s massive $2.5 billion surplus as a funding mechanism.
“Every effort has been made to get reasonable people to fund this and it’s been ignored,” said attorney Lance Jasper, who is representing the county. “The situation is ripe to get an answer.”
Lake County pulling out of the agreement could have dire consequences for residents in the county and on the reservation. Sheriff Don Bell warned that crime rates soared in other areas where laws similar to Public Law 280 were dissolved. He worries that could happen in his county, too.
“In my opinion Public Law 280 is a good thing for this county. It’s worked well for a long time,” Bell said. “We just need the State of Montana to cover what they’re responsible for.”
Now is the time for the Legislature to come to terms on a long-term solution to help fund this agreement. And if that can’t be done, the state must be prepared to shoulder the burden of enforcing Public Law 280.
Lake County taxpayers have carried the water long enough.