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Lake County withdraws from Public Law 280

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LAKE COUNTY — On Tuesday, Jan. 3, the Lake County Commissioners voted to withdraw the county from Public Law 280. 

PL280 is an agreement with the State of Montana passed in 1964 to conduct law enforcement and provide other services on the Flathead Reservation. According to Commissioner Bill Barron, the meeting minutes from that time indicate the county commissioners were told there would be no impact on Lake County, and that was the reason they agreed. In the last nearly 60 years, however, the costs of PL280 for the county and its taxpayers have increased to millions of dollars per year.

The commission met initially about the issue in a Dec. 9 meeting and began the two-part process to withdraw with a gap between meetings for public input. A significant decision, Commissioner Barron said at the time they wanted to make sure the public could weigh in on such an important matter. 

County residents’ support for the withdrawal was shown at the Jan. 3 meeting as all who spoke were in favor of the withdrawal. One attendee even made the case that PL280 should never have gone into effect at all due to a lack of an official seal, much like a notary stamp, on the original document.

The process of withdrawing from PL280 will be a months-long endeavor with an effective date of May 26, after the legislative session is over. According to the resolution document, “the Board has recently learned that one or more bills are being drafted, and are likely to be introduced at the 2023 Session of the Montana Legislature; the aforementioned bills are designed to, and may satisfactorily address the funding problems faced by the County; and the Board desires to allow the Legislature adequate time to consider and address the issue.” This wording and the long timeline are both meant to give the State of Montana legislature time to work with the county to address the situation. Should they come to an agreement, the commissioners could amend the resolution to stay in PL280.  

Commissioners commented that this is part of a two-pronged approach they are taking to get a response from the State, as they also have a lawsuit underway addressing the State’s lack of funding allocated to the agreement. According to a statement put out by Lake County, although the State bound itself to assume criminal jurisdiction under PL280, it has effectively shifted the cost of this obligation onto the county. Though the wording of the bill states, “the state shall reimburse Lake County for assuming criminal jurisdiction under this section annually to the extent funds are appropriated by the Legislature,” according to the lawsuit the state has not appropriated a meaningful sum for this purpose, reducing the amount of appropriation to $1.  

Should Lake County conclude their withdrawal, the State of Montana will be entirely on the hook for the costs of enforcing PL280, including establishing a police and investigative force, finding room in or establishing a jail, and all the costs that come with housing prisoners. Lake County’s existing infrastructure to handle these measures results in approximately $4 million for county taxpayers each year. Should the State take over PL280, they would have to pay to establish the needed infrastructure themselves, which the commissioners said would result in much higher costs for the state than simply allocating appropriate funds to the county.  

The motion to enact Resolution 22-42 to withdraw from PL280 passed unanimously among the commissioners. 

“We either need to be funded or we need to get out of it,” Commissioner Barron commented. “The bottom line is right now we’re just in a situation where it’s not working … My goal in passing this is to get the attention of the legislature, to show them that we’re serious and to get us some funding … The bottom line is this is a public safety issue. That’s what this is truly all about and we need to look after our citizenry and their safety and to me this is what this resolution is about.”

“The county is continuing down a path that will ultimately determine whose responsibility it is to pay the ever-increasing costs of Public Law 280,” Commissioner Gale Decker stated. “The governor has shown no interest in meeting with us to discuss and possibly resolve (the issues) … Our office has had numerous people inquire as to what impact a withdrawal by the county will have on our citizens, and the answer is we don’t know, as this is a first for the state … Long term implications of withdrawal will not be evident for some time.” 

“I’m really saddened that the governor of the State of Montana hasn’t sat down with Lake County and at least tried to have a dialogue on where we’re headed, why we’re headed there,” Commissioner Steve Stanley said. “I think the State could be a huge player in this and in court is not the place to make those decisions.” 

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