HELENA — Leaders from Lake County were in Helena Thursday, making their case that the state should contribute funding to support law enforcement services on the Flathead Indian Reservation.
“I’m here because I’m concerned about public safety in Lake County – that’s what I’m here for; it’s very important to me,” said County Commissioner Bill Barron. “Unfortunately, that’s tied to dollars.”
Lake County is the only county in Montana where local law enforcement has responsibility for felony cases involving Native Americans on tribal land, under federal Public Law 280. It’s because of an agreement between the state and federal governments and the Confederated Salish and Kootenai Tribes, dating back to the 1960s.
County leaders say the system has worked well for years, but they’re warning it can’t continue unless the state helps them with the burden.
“This agreement, which has been in effect for 60 years, at its beginning was of no cost to the county,” said County Commissioner Gale Decker. “But like everything else, after 60 years, costs have escalated dramatically.”
Lake County Sheriff Don Bell said the county has been dealing with a spike in crime, particularly from drug-related offenses. He said the county jail is running at capacity, so they’re generally only holding the most violent offenders.
“We average 45% to 60% in our jail that are tribal members that fit under the Public Law 280 jurisdiction, and that is quite a bit of workload, from the responding to the investigating, housing, taking them to the doctor – all that consumes quite a bit of my budget, my resources,” Bell said.
The county is also currently facing a lawsuit over conditions in the aging jail.
Lake County has estimated it costs them more than $4 million a year to support law enforcement on the reservation – money county leaders say can’t be used to help with jail improvements or other services.
Last year, county leaders began taking action to pressure the state to contribute some of the costs. They filed a lawsuit against the state seeking reimbursement. Then, in December, the county commission 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.
On Thursday, Lake County leaders testified in support of Senate Bill 127, sponsored by Sen. Greg Hertz, R-Polson. Every two years, the bill would require the state and county to negotiate a compensation amount and the Montana Legislature to appropriate the money agreed on. If the two sides couldn’t agree, the state would have to take over law enforcement duties on the reservation.
A fiscal analysis from the governor’s budget office estimates it would take $5 million to fully compensate Lake County each year. Hertz said that’s why it’s important to negotiate an amount.
“The county’s willing to sit down with the state and to see how they can come to an agreement that’s beneficial to not only Lake County, but the state of Montana, CSKT and the rest of the individuals who visit Lake County,” he said.
Hertz also argued it would be far more costly for the state to provide law enforcement themselves, since they’d have to establish a detention center, hire officers and handle prosecutions.
No one testified against SB 127 during Thursday’s hearing in the Senate Judiciary Committee. The committee immediately voted to advance it, 7-4.
Rep. Joe Read, R-Ronan, has an accompanying bill to Hertz’s, House Bill 478. It would appropriate $42 million to reimburse Lake County for providing law enforcement services.
Read also introduced an alternate bill, House Bill 479, which he said was for “if all else fails.” It would appropriate $75 million for the Montana Department of Justice to take over that responsibility. However, Read said Thursday that that number was likely too low, and he had been told it would probably take at least $100 million to stand up state-run law enforcement services on the reservation.
Decker said, if the state does agree to share costs with Lake County, it’s likely they’ll redirect some of the money toward other public safety needs.
“We would like to see a steady stream of revenues, so we could make plans for the future as to where to put those dollars,” he said. “It seems very reasonable that a lot of those dollars would go towards public safety.”
Leaders are also interested in seeking to have the federal government pay some of the costs for law enforcement on the reservation. Hertz said Lake County hasn’t been able to take the federal government to court because the county isn’t an official party to the agreement, and the state hasn’t been able sue because the
“That's why this is so important, to make sure the state steps up, provides their fair share,” said Hertz. “And then I believe, at that point in time, the state could again pursue the federal government for the federal government's responsibility to their portion of this agreement.”
Gov. Greg Gianforte said Thursday that he hasn’t taken a specific position on these bills, but his administration is committed to supporting a resolution to the issue.
“Our goal is to bring the two parties together, because we need to continue to have law enforcement there,” he said.
UPDATE: On Feb. 22, the Montana Senate endorsed SB 127, 34-16 on a preliminary vote. All 34 Republicans voted in favor, while all 16 Democrats were opposed.
Supporters said negotiating a reimbursement amount with Lake County would be a better deal for the state, and it would avoid the uncertainty that would be created if the county withdrew from the agreement. Opponents said the bill was essentially creating a windfall for a single county.
SB 127 will now go before the Senate Finance and Claims Committee for consideration. If the committee advances it, it will go back to the Senate floor for a final vote.