Big Sky Roundup

Lake County still funding law enforcement on Flathead Reservation, despite bill veto

By: - May 26, 2023 5:48 pm

Police barricade tape. (Photo by Tony Webster/Wikimedia Commons)

Lake County Commissioners said in a letter Thursday that they will be honoring their commitment under Public Law 280 despite Gov. Greg Gianforte’s veto of a bill that would have reimbursed the county for the funds needed to do so.

Public Law 280 is an agreement the state opted into decades ago for Lake County to oversee criminal jurisdiction on the Flathead Indian Reservation, and it only currently applies to felonies.

“Out of concerns for the safety of our residents, tribal members and the thousands of visitors who travel through our County, we cannot accept the potential repercussions of our withdrawal at this time,” the letter read.

Commissioners would have 30 days to deliver a withdrawal resolution pending the outcome of their lawsuit with the state, an updated resolution signed by commissioners said.

“The Commissioners are steadfast in their resolve that Lake County taxpayers should not be saddled with funding all PL 280 costs,” the letter read. “The extension of the effective date of Resolution 22-42(a) does not signal a weakening of that resolve.”

The legislation that was vetoed would have appropriated $5 million for the biennium to run criminal jurisdiction that Lake County has argued – and has also filed suit over – is the financial responsibility of the state. The bill would have also started a task force with stakeholders to help recommend a permanent solution.

A spokesperson from Gianforte’s office said Friday his veto letter stands for itself.

In the letter, Gianforte says it would be “inexplicable” why it should be the state’s responsibility to fund part of local law enforcement on the reservation, saying it was part of the initial agreement that the county fund criminal jurisdiction and that the $5 million didn’t have any conditions or requirements for the county.

Bill sponsor Rep. Joe Read, R-Ronan, previously told the Daily Montanan that the county would go bankrupt in 10 to 12 years if it continues to pay for these services and that the veto letter is evidence of a lack of understanding on law enforcement on the Flathead Reservation.

Prior to the legislative session, commissioners signed a resolution that they would withdraw from the agreement if the legislature didn’t allocate funds to reimburse the county, saying it costs over $4 million per year to run.

The updated resolution signed Thursday said that the county would continue their obligation under the agreement as their court had denied the state’s motion to dismiss their lawsuit against the state for reimbursing funds.

“The Board believes it is in the best interest of the people of Lake County and the Confederated Salish and Kootenai Tribes to obtain and consider the Court’s declaratory judgment ruling in the Lawsuit before exercising its right to withdraw from enforcement of P.L. 280 jurisdiction,” the resolution read.

Commissioners said they believe Gianforte has no plan in place for the state to assume criminal jurisdiction if the county were to withdraw. They said if the court determines the state to be responsible for criminal jurisdiction, they would recommend maintaining their model.

“We must have an answer from the Court before an informed decision can be made. Governor Gianforte’s actions, words and promises have shown ambivalence toLake County, CSKT and the residents of Lake County,” the letter read. “Tribal members, police officers and people visiting Lake County require a judicial determination not subjected to a veto.”

Our stories may be republished online or in print under Creative Commons license CC BY-NC-ND 4.0. We ask that you edit only for style or to shorten, provide proper attribution and link to our web site. Please see our republishing guidelines for use of photos and graphics.

Nicole Girten
Nicole Girten

Nicole Girten is a reporter for the Daily Montanan. She previously worked at the Great Falls Tribune as a government watchdog reporter. She holds a degree from Florida State University and a Master of Science from the Medill School of Journalism at Northwestern University.