HELENA — Gov. Greg Gianforte has vetoed a bill that would have provided some state funding to support Lake County’s law enforcement services on the Flathead Indian Reservation.
House Bill 479, sponsored by Rep. Joe Read, R-Ronan, would have paid the county $5 million over two years as reimbursement for some of their law enforcement costs. It also would have created a task force to bring forward recommendations on how to address this issue in the long term.
Lake County has investigated and prosecuted felony cases involving Native Americans on the reservation since the 1960s. That arrangement – the only one of its kind in Montana – is based on an agreement between the state and federal governments and the Confederated Salish and Kootenai Tribes, under federal Public Law 280.
County leaders estimate it costs them more than $4 million a year to provide law enforcement on tribal land, and they say they’re overwhelmed by the rising costs. Last year, they filed a lawsuit against the state, seeking partial reimbursement. The county commission then announced that, if Montana doesn’t start providing some funding, they’ll withdraw from the agreement and ask the state government to take over law enforcement themselves.
The Montana Legislature considered three different bills that would have contributed some state funding to Lake County. They eventually passed only HB 479 – with a much smaller amount of money than initially proposed.
In his veto letter, Gianforte praised the current system, but said Lake County had provided law enforcement services on the reservation and “willingly accepted” the costs for decades.
“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,” he said. “Lake County wants all the benefits of exercising jurisdiction under PL-280 while shifting all financial responsibility to the state.”
Gianforte said PL-280 didn’t resolve the underlying issue and “simply kicks the can down the road” until 2025.
HB 479 received just over two-thirds support in the Legislature, meaning it could be eligible for a potential veto override poll. Two-thirds of the members in both the House and Senate would have to vote in favor to overturn the veto.
Lake County’s legal action against the state remains in progress. Earlier this month, a district court judge from Kalispell dismissed the county’s claims that the state had subjected it to an unfunded mandate and that it had unjustly withheld compensation because the statute of limitations had expired on those claims. However, she ruled they could continue to seek a declaratory judgment that the state should be liable for reimbursing the county for law enforcement costs going forward, and said that issue will proceed to trial.