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Governor vetoes Public Law 280 legislation

by KRISTI NIEMEYER
Editor | May 25, 2023 12:00 AM

Last Wednesday, Gov. Greg Gianforte vetoed House Bill 479 – the only bill regarding Public Law 280 to make it through the 2023 Legislature. And this Thursday, the Lake County Commissioners vote on whether to withdraw from the law enforcement agreement that’s given the county felony criminal jurisdiction over tribal members since 1965.

In recent years, Lake County has argued that investigating, prosecuting and detaining tribal members under the agreement has grown too expensive, with the burden falling largely on local taxpayers at the expense of other programs. County commissioners believe the state should cover those additional expenses, or take over felony jurisdiction for tribal members completely – at a cost that some have estimated at $75 million for the state to set up its own police force, court system and detention center.

The bill vetoed by the governor last week asserted that the state “does not believe it has an obligation to fund law enforcement services in Lake County.” Still, the legislation would have allocated $5 million over the next biennium to the Department of Justice to reimburse Lake County for its law enforcement activities on the Flathead Reservation.

It would also have established a task force with representatives from the governor’s office, the Confederated Salish and Kootenai Tribes, the county commissioners and the attorney general to make recommendations on the future of the law enforcement agreement.

The bill vetoed by Gianforte emphasized “the positive attributes” of the agreement and would have sought to prohibit Lake County from pulling out of Public Law 280 before July 1, 2025, allowing the Tribes and county time to “determine whether they wish to continue the relationship with their collective resources.”

The legislation was almost the opposite of a bill signed by the governor in 2021 that declared that the state “obligates and binds itself to assume criminal jurisdiction under Public Law 280,” and would reimburse Lake County “to the extent funds are appropriated by the legislature.” However, lawmakers only appropriated $1.

This time around, local legislators sought a more significant appropriation for both past and future costs related to law enforcement duties involving tribal members.

“The Governor has ignored the law by vetoing the bill,” writes Polson Senator Greg Hertz, who had crafted a companion piece of legislation designed to end the funding impasse and also supported the most recent iteration.

“The veto decision will most likely require the court to step in and force the state to provide funding as required by law, possibly at a much higher amount,” he predicted in a recent email.

In fact, the court has stepped in with District Court Judge Amy Eddy ruling May 4 that she would allow the county to seek a judgement declaring that the state is responsible for reimbursing Lake County for costs incurred going forward. The next court date is July 19 at the Flathead County Courthouse.

In a letter addressed to Senate President Jason Ellsworth and House Speaker Matt Regier, the governor outlined his reasons for vetoing HB 479. He noted that when the county signed on to Public Law 280 in 1965, “it agreed to bear the corresponding costs for the benefit of its residents, both tribal and non-tribal,” and until recently had never “received or expected contributions from the state toward the PL 280 costs.”

He accused the county of “inexplicably” changing course and seeking “all the benefits of exercising jurisdiction under PL 280 while shifting all financial responsibility to the state.”

He was also critical of the legislature for passing a bill that “fails to address the underlying issue of financial responsibility,” and instead offers “empty aspirational hopes without a guarantee of a future resolution.”

The bill, he wrote, provided no requirements as to how Lake County would spend the $5 million or account for that expenditure.

“House Bill 479 simply kicks the can down the road,,creating a slippery slope at the end of which we can expect another request for funding in 2025 from Lake County – and any other counties experiencing financial pressures in enforcing state criminal jurisdiction within their boundaries,” concluded the governor..

Meanwhile, the county commissioners are due to decide at 10 a.m. Thursday morning whether or not to officially withdraw from Public Law 280, a move that would require the governor to issue a proclamation, and give the county six months to withdraw while the state plots a path forward.