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Gianforte supports limited financial assistance for Flathead Reservation law enforcement

by NICOLE GIRTEN Daily Montanan
| May 22, 2024 12:00 AM

In a recent letter, Gov. Greg Gianforte said he is amenable to providing temporary financial relief to Lake County for as long as three years in the transition period following the county’s withdrawal from handling law enforcement on the Flathead Indian Reservation.

The financial burden in fulfilling the agreement, an estimated $4 million, was the county’s biggest reason for withdrawing from a decades-long agreement, which commissioners officially did Monday.

Commissioners are hoping the state will give $2.5 million to the county that was in legislation the governor vetoed last year.

Lake County Commissioners are were scheduled to meet with Gianforte on Tuesday afternoon to discuss a transition strategy, according to Commissioner Gale Decker.

Decker said the county will still operate like PL-280 is in place until there is a transition plan.

The state assumed criminal jurisdiction over the Flathead Reservation in 1963 under an agreement passed by Congress called Public Law 280, or PL-280. The county has provided law enforcement through the terms of this agreement for years but moved to withdraw due to cost.

However, on the ground, Decker said, nothing changed as of Monday.

“Where we are right now is we’re going to continue to exercise jurisdiction, Lake County, just because the state and the feds have said they can’t do it and somebody has to do it,” Decker told the Daily Montanan. “We are going to continue doing it in the interest of public safety.”

The Governor’s office and commissioners disagree on the status of the official withdrawal, but in his letter to commissioners, Gianforte also explained the reason he opposed having the state pay the entire bill.

“If the state were to fully and indefinitely fund the costs Lake County willingly undertook when it consented to the implementation of PL 280, it would create an unsustainable burden on the state’s general fund, be inconsistent with how law enforcement is funded in every other Montana county, and lead to requests from other counties who would legitimately seek financial assistance for their local expenses once the precedent has been set,” Gianforte said.

Gianforte said he would support limited financial assistance for a period up to three years as the county transitions to a long term solution “that is consistent with how similar expenses are funded in all other local jurisdictions in Montana.”

If the county stops providing law enforcement services under PL-280 altogether, and if no other action is taken, the federal government would assume felony jurisdiction on the reservation.

The Governor’s office also said the commission didn’t send the necessary document to exit the agreement, so the governor was not in a position to issue a proclamation saying as much. According to statute, a governor’s proclamation follows the withdrawal letter.

Commissioners said they did send it, and their withdrawal is effective Monday – with or without the governor’s proclamation.

The two parties will meet Tuesday in Helena to discuss what transitioning away from the agreement would look like, Decker said. He said the meeting would not be open to the public as it would involve litigation strategy.

The Confederated Salish and Kootenai Tribes have handled misdemeanor offenses on the Flathead Indian Reservation since the 1990s. The federal government oversees felonies on other reservations in the state.

In 2023, Gianforte vetoed a bill that would have funded the effort, saying there should have been more restrictions on what the money could be used for.

Last fall commissioners passed a resolution to withdraw the county from the agreement – which they said became effective Monday.

Gianforte told commissioners in March the only tool left for him to address the question over who is responsible for law enforcement is to pull the state out from the agreement entirely.

Last week, Gianforte’s office claimed the withdrawal by commissioners isn’t technically official, and therefore the proclamation isn’t required just yet.

Last week Gianforte’s legal counsel sent a letter to the commission claiming the governor’s office hadn’t received the resolution needed to relinquish the county from PL-280.

In November, the commission passed a resolution changing the date of delivery to the governor for a previous resolution requesting withdrawal from the agreement. In the letter sent Thursday, Attorney Anita Milanovich said the commission sent its resolution changing the date, but not the originally passed resolution to withdraw.

“As such, I must conclude that a proclamation from the Governor is improper at this time,” Milanovich said.

In a press release Friday, Lake County Commissioners said they are “confident” the county followed the statutory process for the governor to issue his proclamation. But Decker said Monday the county’s withdrawal “is effective today, with or without the governor’s proclamation.”

In a separate letter sent Thursday, Gianforte said he would be unable to issue a proclamation, citing Milanovich’s reasoning in her letter, but also said local law enforcement is a “local responsibility and not a state responsibility.”

U.S. Attorney for Montana Jesse Laslovich told commissioners last month that the feds would likely only pursue “big fish” cases, meaning fewer cases get prosecuted and more “menace” within the community.

The CSKT issued a statement last week saying the tribe continues to monitor the situation and remain committed to local, state and federal partners. A spokesperson for the tribe gave no comment if there would be tribal representation in Tuesday’s meeting between the county and governor’s office.

Last month Attorney General Austin Knudsen met with Lake County Commissioners and said he would help foster communication between the commission and the governor’s office. However, Decker said Monday the commission hadn’t heard from Knudsen since, but Decker says that doesn’t mean Knudsen didn’t say anything to the governor’s office.

A spokesperson for the Attorney General’s office did not immediately respond to questions confirming Knudsen’s involvement.

Decker said he’s hoping for continued conversations on what the transition plan is going to be as the county and likely state withdraw from the agreement entirely. But in the meantime, although the county has formally withdrawn, it will still execute the agreement.

“We are going to continue to exercise jurisdiction,” Decker said. “We are going to keep the people in Lake County safe.”

Nicole Girten is a reporter for the Daily Montanan, a nonprofit newsroom.