Jonathon Ambarian

HELENA (KPAX) - A proposal is still moving forward at the Montana Legislature to have the state contribute some funding to support Lake County’s law enforcement services on the Flathead Indian Reservation — but it’s much different from its initial form.

On Wednesday, the Senate Judiciary Committee held a hearing on House Bill 479, sponsored by Rep. Joe Read, R-Ronan. The bill was one of three proposals introduced on the issue this session, but it’s the only one that remains alive.

In its current form, it would provide a one-time payment that’s intended to keep the current system going – for now.

“The purpose of this bill now is to basically provide for two years of cushion — $2.5 million a year — to reimburse Lake County and find a long-term solution for this issue,” Read said.

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 (CSKT), under federal Public Law 280.

County leaders estimate it costs them more than $4 million a year to support law enforcement on tribal land — and they’re overwhelmed by the rising costs.

Last year, they filed a lawsuit against the state, seeking reimbursement for some of those costs.

The Lake 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 House Appropriations Committee, the main budget committee in the House, considered three bills this year that would have contributed some state funding for Lake County. They only advanced HB 479, and they amended the amount of money down to $5 million.

Rep. Bill Mercer, R-Billings, supported that change. He said he recognized the positive impact of having Lake County continue to provide law enforcement services on the reservation, but he didn’t believe the state should be subsidizing local law enforcement going forward.

“I think there is a desire to make sure that we create a little bit more time for the tribe, the county and the state to determine whether we can preserve this working relationship, and we're just not going to be able to get that done by the end of this month,” he said. “So the idea, at least in the amendment that I brought, was to say, ‘Let's see if we can preserve what we have, but send a very clear message to the parties that this isn't something that we're going to do again.’”

Mercer said he believes the county and tribe benefit from the current arrangement, as compared to other reservations in the state where the federal government is responsible for handling felony cases.

“Frankly, I think we should be able to reach some sort of a multilateral agreement, and I hope that we do,” he said.

Lake County Commissioner Gale Decker spoke in support of HB 479 Wednesday, but he told MTN News that county leaders still have questions.

“We still don't know exactly if there will be some sideboards put on that money,” he said. “We need to have some discussions as a commission as to whether or not that money is going to be sufficient to keep the county solvent. So there's a ways yet to go in this whole process.”

Decker said he felt they had made progress on the issue over the last two sessions. He said they hoped for a longer-term resolution, but they acknowledged it was a complicated issue.

“I think in summary, what we're looking at is kind of a bridge, to get us through the next two years, keep Public Law 280 in place,” he said. “Then during that time, the state can really nail down what their position is, and the tribe can do some more investigation to what they might be able to take over.”

There was some opposition to HB 479 Wednesday, from people who objected to the PL-280 arrangement entirely. Keegan Medrano, policy director for the ACLU of Montana, called the law a “dysfunctional unfunded mandate” that was based on outdated policies toward tribes.

“PL-280 is that invitation by the federal government for intrusion by the state government into the civil and criminal jurisdiction of tribal peoples, that subverts their inherent sovereignty and which leaves everyone less safe,” he said.

The Senate Judiciary Committee took no immediate action on HB 479 Wednesday.

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