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Public Law 280 funding obligation falls to state

by Daily Inter Lake
| February 27, 2022 12:00 AM

Lake County has handled law enforcement responsibilities on the Flathead Reservation since the early 1960s, not long after Congress passed Public Law 280. The law allows states to assume criminal jurisdiction over Native American reservations, which is traditionally handled by federal authorities.

The Confederated Salish and Kootenai Tribes were among the tribes to opt in to such an agreement, and today Lake County is responsible for all felony enforcement, detention and prosecution, among other criminal justice tasks.

It’s a tall order, but county officials contend the local relationship has worked well for all residents, both tribal members and non-members.

There’s just one glaring issue. Lake County taxpayers are left footing a bill that has ballooned to more than $4 million annually.

It’s time for that to change.

The law clearly defines Public Law 280 as the obligation of the “State of Montana,” not Lake County taxpayers. And while the financial burden may have been less significant decades ago when the arrangement first began, that’s no longer the case.

Lake County Commissioner Bill Barron put it in dire terms, saying the county government is at “a breaking point” due to Public Law 280’s unfair financial burden.

Commissioners say law enforcement now accounts for 40-60% of the county budget.

“It’s created a crisis for us,” Barron said, noting that funding Public Law 280 has left the county unable to pay for other needs like facility maintenance, infrastructure and upgrades to a jail that is wholly inadequate for the demands of the county’s growing population and related crime rate.

“Just about every department we have is underfunded,” Barron said.

Ronan Rep. Joe Read attempted to spur discussion on the matter in the last legislative session, introducing a bill that would have established a reimbursement of nearly $2.2 million annually — about half of what the county says it needs. Yet, that bill was sliced and diced until the reimbursement amount was whittled down to just one measly dollar.

Instead of funding, it offered the county the option to withdraw from Public Law 280 entirely.

To quote Caddyshack’s Judge Smails, “You’ll get nothing and like it!”

In response, the commissioners have put serious heat on Gov. Greg Gianforte’s office and the state Legislature to address the funding obligation — threatening to pull out of the agreement if a remedy isn’t promptly reached.

Withdrawing from the jurisdiction deal, Barron says, isn’t optimal. As a former sheriff and now as commissioner, he says keeping law enforcement local — and out of federal hands — has worked well for everyone.

“It’s the right way to do law enforcement on the reservation,” he said in a video the county sent to Gianforte’s office.

“But when the state signed on to this all these years ago, and said they’d take responsibility and there wouldn’t be any impact on the county, well that’s changed. It’s now a huge impact on the county.”

The county has presented several potential short-term and long-term solutions to the impasse over funding, including diversion of funds from the general fund, the state’s special revenue funds or the BIA through the American Rescue Plan Act.

There are options on the table.

It’s past time the state upholds its obligation to Lake County residents, and we urge the governor to give serious consideration to the commissioner’s requests. The consequences of continued inaction are unacceptable.