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Gianforte vetoes a bill to reimburse Lake County for the CSKT law enforcement agreement



Helena, Montana – A bill that would have provided some state funds to bolster Lake County’s law enforcement operations on the Flathead Indian Reservation has been vetoed by Governor Greg Gianforte.

Rep. Joe Read, R-Ronan, introduced House Bill 479, which would have reimbursed the county for some of its law enforcement expenses by paying it $5 million over two years. Additionally, it would have established a task team to make suggestions for long-term solutions to this problem.

Since the 1960s, Lake County has looked into and prosecuted felony charges involving Native Americans who lived on the reservation. The Confederated Salish and Kootenai Tribes and the state and federal governments reached an agreement under federal Public Law 280 that forms the basis of this arrangement, the only one of its kind in Montana.

County officials claim they are overwhelmed by the escalating costs of providing law enforcement on tribal lands, which they estimate to be more than $4 million a year. They sued the state last year in an effort to get a portion of their money back. The county commission then said that they would leave the agreement and seek the state government to take over law enforcement if Montana didn’t start contributing some funding.

Three different legislation that would have given Lake County some state funds were under consideration by the Montana Legislature. Only HB 479 was ultimately approved, and it contained a significantly lower budget than was originally suggested.

Gianforte lauded the existing system in his veto letter but claimed Lake County had long provided law enforcement on the reservation and “willingly accepted” the costs.

“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 claimed that PL-280 “simply kicks the can down the road” until 2025 and did not address the fundamental problem.

Just over two-thirds of lawmakers supported HB 479, making it potentially subject to a vote to overturn a veto. To reverse the veto, the votes of two-thirds of the members of the House and Senate are required.

The case brought by Lake County against the state is still pending. The county’s claims that the state had unfairly denied it compensation and subjected it to an unfunded mandate were dismissed earlier this month by a district court judge in Kalispell because the period of limitations had passed. She did, however, declare that they could continue to ask for a declaratory ruling that the state should be responsible for paying the county’s future law enforcement expenses, and she stated that the case will go to trial at that point.

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