Law Enforcement

Attorney General Commits to Supporting Funds for Flathead Reservation Law Enforcement

Lake County commissioners expressed doubt in the governor’s commitment, as Gianforte vetoed legislation in 2023 that would have sent $5 million to the county

By Nicole Girten, Daily Montanan

Attorney General Austin Knudsen committed to Lake County commissioners on Monday he would support legislation to fund law enforcement on the Flathead Indian Reservation and would serve as a mediator between the county and the governor’s office.

Knudsen said he’s met with the governor’s office on the issue of funding public safety in Lake County, and relayed Gov. Greg Gianforte and Lt. Gov. Kristen Juras would support legislation to send money to the county for law enforcement.

But commissioners expressed doubt in the governor’s commitment, as Gianforte vetoed legislation in 2023 that would have sent $5 million to the county.

“Right now, I do not trust our governor at all,” said Commissioner Bill Barron. “We’re just up against a wall.”

A spokesperson for the governor’s office said the governor has been “clear and consistent on this matter,” pointing to the veto letter for the legislation where the governor said he nixed the bill because there weren’t restrictions on what the funding could be used for.

The state assumed criminal jurisdiction over the Flathead Reservation in 1963 under an agreement passed by Congress called Public Law 280. The Confederated Salish and Kootenai Tribes have handled misdemeanor offenses since the 1990s. The federal government oversees felonies on other reservations in the state.

The county has provided law enforcement through the terms of this agreement for years, but commissioners have in recent years said they can no longer afford to keep doing so at an estimated annual cost of $4 million.

Gianforte vetoed a 2023 bill that would have funded the effort and most recently told commissioners the only tool left for him is to pull out from the agreement entirely.

The county is set to withdraw from the agreement May 20, with the governor expected to dissolve it entirely shortly after. If no additional action is taken, the federal government will assume felony jurisdiction on the reservation.

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.

Knudsen told commissioners in the Monday meeting the state Department of Justice wouldn’t be able to allocate resources to the county without legislative authorization, and as it stands, the department doesn’t have the staff to be able to handle the additional workload even if they did.

“I would love to come in here and tell you that this is something that I can just shoot a magic bullet and fix for you,” he said. “There are several problems with that.”

The best path forward, Knudsen said, was for the county to continue operating under and funding PL-280. He said he understood funding PL-280 was their biggest concern, but said he was told directly the governor intends to sign legislation to fund PL-280 next session. He said they did not discuss numbers, but the commission could see funding next year.

But commissioners were skeptical and said they did not trust the governor would keep his end of the deal.

Barron said the commission has been down this path before, and had legislation pass that would have funded about half of what the program costs, only for it to be vetoed.

“It was very disheartening,” he said.

Commissioner Gale Decker said the commission also had to spend so much time educating legislators on what PL-280 is, taking a few trips to Helena to speak in committee meetings and with legislators directly.

“It was a heavy lift,” Decker said. “It would take more education because I’m sure we’re going to have a bunch of new legislators who will have to be coached up on Public Law 280.”

Knudsen said his office could help in that education, and pointed to the department’s lobbyist who was in the room.

Commissioner Steve Stanley said this has become a “money driven” issue, but ultimately one about figuring out who is going to protect the 33,000 people who live on the reservation and the county. He said he would like for representatives from the state, county and tribe to be able to sit down and find a solution.

Stanley said it’s pretty clear the tribe would like to take over jurisdiction for felonies, but they’re not ready to do so right now.

Confederated Salish and Kootenai Tribes council member Carole Depoe-Lankford said at a recent council meeting she supports the state getting out of PL-280 and that she believes the tribe can do a better job of federal criminal oversight, as reported by Char-Koosta News.

At the meeting Monday, County Attorney James Lapotka said the county needs a “lot of help from Helena.”

He said his office has prosecuted 400 felonies in the last year, and 200 of them fall under PL-280. He also said there needs to be better coordination with the Department of Corrections in getting inmates to prison as well as the the Department of Public Health and Human Services to get people to the state hospital in Warm Springs.

“We’ve had inmates that were sentenced to DPHHS commitments that have languished in our isolation cells for six months while they’re waiting to get a bed date over there,” Lapotka said.

Lance Jasper, attorney for the county commission on PL-280, asked if the attorney general could put his commitment to be a mediator and support legislation to fund PL-280 in writing.

“You’re asking Lake County to fund wholly this until the next legislature takes place,” Jasper said. “And that’s asking a lot of the residents of Lake County County to fund on a promise.”

Knudsen said that was reasonable.

Rep. Joe Read, R-Ronan, who sponsored the legislation that was vetoed by Gianforte, said the issue was largely Republican party infighting, since PL-280 itself is supported by the state and the commission.

Read said a special session could be possible, as there were other issues like property taxes that were top of mind for other legislators. Knudsen also said a special session could be a possibility but was “dubious” it would come to fruition. The next legislative session starts in January of 2025.

As it stands, the county will withdraw from PL-280 on May 20, and the state will withdraw from the agreement altogether shortly after.

This story originally appeared in the The Daily Montanan, which can be found online at dailymontanan.com.