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Gianforte addresses Lake County's withdrawal from Public Law 280

by KRISTI NIEMEYER
Hagadone News Network | March 7, 2024 12:00 AM

In a long-awaited letter, Gov. Greg Gianforte informed the Lake County Commissioners March 1 that his administration had no intention of allocating “current resources to assist with law enforcement in Lake County” after May 20, when the county officially pulls out of Public Law 280.

The agreement signed by the county, state and the Confederated Salish and Kootenai Tribes has governed felony prosecution of tribal members since it was inked by all three parties in 1965.

For several years now, Lake County has argued that detaining, investigating and prosecuting members of this tribe and other tribal nations who commit crimes on the Flathead Reservation has grown too costly and that local taxpayers shouldn’t bear that expense – estimated at an additional $4 million a year – alone. Since the state also signed the agreement, and the Tribes already foot the bill for misdemeanors and some felonies, the county has argued that the state has a responsibility to either step in and contribute or take over felony jurisdiction completely.

In his letter, the governor denies that either his office or the Department of Justice bear any such responsibility and argues that only the Legislature can appropriate those additional resources.

In 2021, the year the Legislature passed House Bill 656 allowing Lake County to unilaterally withdraw from the agreement, lawmakers also offered up $1 a year to help fund it.

Last year, legislators passed House Bill 479, which would have appropriated $2.5 million a year during the biennium, insisted Lake County remain in the agreement, asserted that the state had no obligation to help fund the county’s law enforcement efforts, and created a task force within the Department of Justice to make recommendations to the governor and legislature about how to move forward. It was vetoed by the governor.

In his letter dated March 2, the governor makes no mention of HB 479. Instead, he refers to HB 656, writing, “The Legislature did not provide additional resources or funding to the Department of Justice, the Governor’s Office, or any other state agency in the event of a withdrawal. In the absence of any legislative authorization, the current legal regime and appropriated resources are the framework within which any solutions must be derived.”

He adds that neither his office nor the Department of Justice “have the constitutional authority to appropriate funds or change the existing law enforcement regime.”

Instead, the governor suggests “all stakeholders work together to determine innovative and appropriate solutions within the existing framework and allocation of resources.” 

His letter points out that Flathead, Missoula and Sanders counties are still part of the PL-280 agreement, and that the communities of Polson, Ronan, St. Ignatius and Hot Springs also have agreements in place “which provide protocols for cooperation between jurisdictions.” 

The letter concludes that the governor’s “only potential tool” is to “initiate retrocession of felony criminal jurisdiction to the United States.” That move would hand felony jurisdiction over tribal members to the FBI and federal courts, which is the system in place on Montana’s six other reservations.

He adds, “I hope you are able to resolve your concerns in coordination with CSKT, the federal government, and the counties and cities located within the Flathead Reservation.”

County Commissioner Gale Decker said Tuesday that commissioners were meeting with legal counsel Wednesday to review the governor’s response and had no further comment.

IN A press release Tuesday afternooon, CSKT vowed to continue to collaborate with all jurisdictions across the Reservation “to provide robust law enforcement services and ensure the safety of all citizens in our communities.”

“Our focus on public safety remains steadfast regardless of the status of PL 280,” said CSKT Tribal Council Chairman Michael Dolson. “We are committed to security in our communities. As the process unfolds, we continue to prepare and shape jurisdictional considerations for the future.” 

According to the press release, CSKT will offer technical, legal, and personnel resources as the Tribes work with state and federal partners chart a path forward.

CSKT Tribal Police Chief Craige Couture added that the Tribes will continue providing law enforcement services to both tribal and non-tribal members. 

“When there is a call for emergency services, tribal officers are there making our communities more secure,” he said. “The status of PL 280 does not change our mission, and we remain dedicated to the longstanding collaborative partnerships we have established with other jurisdictions.” 

He added the CSKT already conducts the majority of criminal investigations on the Reservation “using CSKT resources and funding.” 

That includes exercising exclusive misdemeanor jurisdiction and shared felony jurisdiction with the State and, in some instances, the federal government over offenses allegedly committed by members of federally recognized tribes within the exterior boundaries of the Flathead Indian Reservation.  

Dolson, calling PL 280 “the last vestiges of this termination-era policy that has run its course,” vowed that public safety would remain a priority. 

“We appreciate all the work that many people, across several different governments, have contributed,” he said. “We appreciate the partnership of the stakeholders as we determine the best public policy moving forward.”