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Gianforte vetoes bill that would provide funding for law enforcement on Flathead reservation

by DARRELL EHRLICK Daily Montanan
| May 23, 2023 11:10 AM

Rep. Joe Read described what he thinks will happen next on the Flathead Indian Reservation when it comes to law enforcement.

“The governor has walked into a buzzsaw by vetoing this,” Read said.

Last week, Montana Gov. Greg Gianforte vetoed House Bill 479 which would have provided funding for law enforcement on the the Flathead Reservation and given a coalition of stakeholders from the state, Lake County and Confederated Salish and Kootenai tribes a chance to come up with a long-term solution.

Now, with a veto, a pending lawsuit and a notice by Lake County Commissioners that they’re no longer going to be providing law enforcement for state criminal matters, what happens next when it comes to law enforcement isn’t clear.

A veto letter by Gov. Greg Gianforte claims it’s “inexplicable” why it should be the state’s responsibility to fund part of local law enforcement on the reservation.

That mystery would be solved, Read said, by taking a glance at Lake County’s budget.

“Nearly a quarter of the entire county’s budget goes to supporting policing of tribal members,” Read said. “That doesn’t happen in Billings or Great Falls or even Cutbank, which is on the edge of the reservation.”

He said increasing costs, federal lands that don’t generate local tax revenue and a unique law enforcement arrangement have given Lake County Commissioners enough worry to ask the state to either find funding for law enforcement or take over policing itself.

“If our projections continue, Lake County will go bankrupt in 10 to 12 years,” Read said. “Well, what’s the state going to do when we go bankrupt? You know we were made a county, half coming from Flathead County, half coming from Missoula County, and I’m sure neither one wants to take us back.”

Read said the veto letter is evidence of a lack of understanding that stretches all the way to the governor’s office about law enforcement on the Flathead Reservation.

“The reason this is happening is because there is a misunderstanding of PL-280 and the director of the budget has no relationship with the tribes and how it works,” he said.

The Flathead Reservation is home to the Confederated Salish and Kootenai tribes.

Seventy years ago, the federal government created Public Law 280 which granted states the option to exercise local law enforcement control on reservation lands. Among all Montana’s tribal nations, the Flathead reservation remains unique because the state and tribe agreed that it would provide enforcement in 1965.

The agreement let Lake County authorities handle any felony criminal jurisdiction, but provided no funding.

On other tribal lands in Montana, law enforcement is taken care of by a mix of local police agencies, the Federal Bureau of Investigation and the Bureau of Indian Affairs.

However, PL-280 has been in operation for decades, but Lake County said that increasing costs and responsibilities has meant it can no longer provide law enforcement without help from the state. Read said the additional costs are starving other county programs like services to senior citizens.

“In the past few years, Lake County has inexplicably changed course, asserting that the state should be responsible for all costs associated with the implementation of PL-280 while the county retains full control,” Gianforte’s veto letter said. “Lake County wants all the benefits of exercising jurisdiction under PL-280 while shifting all financial responsibility to the state.”

In 2021, lawmakers struck a deal that would have provided funding for law enforcement on the reservation, but legislators only appropriated $1 in funding.

“I am not a fan of the governor in any way, shape or form,” said Read, a Republican from Ronan.

He named several other problems with legislation from 2023 that had bipartisan support only to be killed by the executive, including House Bill 442, which enjoyed widespread support for allocating state revenues from recreational marijuana.

Meanwhile, Lake County Commissioners have given the state the requisite six-month notice that will allow it to stop providing law enforcement services, which leaves the question of felony criminal jurisdiction unresolved.

Lake County has also sued the state, claiming that it has saddled the county with an unfunded mandate, contrary to state law. It also asked a district court judge to reinstate funding its owed.

Last month, District Court Judge Amy Eddy ruled that Lake County was barred by the state’s statute of limitations for getting more than three year’s worth of funding, but said a court case against the state could continue.

Commissioners told the Daily Montanan two weeks ago they were undecided about pursuing a court case if House Bill 479 passed. Now, it appears suing the state may be the only way to get any money.

“In passing House Bill 479, the Legislature has failed to address the underlying issue of financial responsibility for implementation of PL-280, stating instead empty aspirational hopes without a guarantee of future resolution,” Gianforte said. “House Bill 479 simple kicks the can down the road, creating a slippery slope at the end of which we can expect another request for funding in 2025 from Lake County – and any other counties experiencing financial pressures in enforcing state criminal jurisdiction within their boundaries.”

Now, with the legislation all but dead, the county commission said it will decide how to handle the lawsuit in the next several days.

A spokesperson for the CSKT had no comment when reached Monday.

Even by the state’s own estimates, it would take as much as $100 million for Montana to create its own police force. Currently, the state’s Department of Justice oversees the Montana Highway Patrol, but that agency is not primarily responsible for all law enforcement in any particular area. The decision by Lake County could force the state to design a law enforcement agency from the ground up.

“If the county has the chutzpah, the state will have to take over this because it’s their responsibility,” Read said.

And he said that’s disappointing, not just a lawmaker, but as a resident of the county. He said he lives on a fairly well-traveled road in Ronan. When law enforcement have someone detained, sometimes several agencies will respond to ensure the proper authority handles the case. He said it’s a model of cooperation among law enforcement that has served the reservation well, and not common on other tribal lands in the state.

Read said while many were upset that the Legislature only gave $1 to law enforcement two years ago, he was delighted. He said that was at least an acknowledgement that the state had responsibility for funding law enforcement through PL-280, even though Read said Lake County is still waiting on the $1 appropriation.

“We’ve never been paid,” he said.

Darrell Ehrlick is the editor-in-chief of the Daily Montanan, a nonprofit newsroom. To read the article as originally published, click here.

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