Governor ignores repercussions of veto
| May 28, 2023 12:00 AM
Gov. Greg Gianforte wielded his veto power May 17 when he rejected a bill that would have reimbursed Lake County for some of the costs it incurs to conduct felony law enforcement on the Flathead Reservation through Public Law 280.
The governor should have holstered his veto pen on this legislation. Now, the state and county are headed toward a costly court battle, and the potential dissolution of an agreement that even the governor has praised as “a model of success.”
Lake County officials have long contended that the state should bear the costs of fulfilling the Public Law 280 agreement — in place on the Flathead Reservation since 1965 — and that it has become too expensive for the county to handle while unnecessarily saddling the local tax base and reducing services.
Rep. Joe Read’s House Bill 479 would have allocated $5 million over the next two years to the Department of Justice to reimburse Lake County for its law enforcement activities on the reservation. It also sought to create a committee tasked with hashing out a long-term plan for the law enforcement pact.
The bill passed the House on a 68-32 vote and the Senate 34-16, with nearly full Republican support in both chambers.
In his veto message, the Republican governor accused Lake County of seeking “all the benefits of exercising jurisdiction under PL-280 while shifting all financial responsibility to the state.”
He continued that the legislation fails to adequately address financial responsibility of Public Law 280, adding that it “kicks the can down the road, creating a slippery slope,” which would only lead to more requests for state funding.
The slippery slope Gianforte should be more worried about is the fallout of Lake County abruptly withdrawing from an agreement that the state clearly benefits from, and that is in the best interest of all Montana citizens.
Thankfully, Lake County commissioners on May 25 voted to extend its commitment to Public Law 280 until forthcoming legal challenges are decided.
“We believe the governor has no plan in place for the state to assume criminal jurisdiction on the Flathead Reservation if Lake County were to withdraw,” the commissioners wrote.
Out of a concern for safety and stability, the commissioners said the county would stay in the agreement while court proceedings take place.
Rep. Read’s thoughtful and fully vetted legislation provided reasonable funding to Lake County in the interim, while setting up a work group to establish financially responsible perimeters going forward. More importantly, it assured Lake County’s continued commitment to law enforcement on the reservation.
Through his hasty veto, the governor instead chose to test the serious consequences of Lake County’s potential withdrawal from Public Law 280, while heading down the path of even more costly litigation for the state.