Senate Judiciary Committee votes to fund PL280
HELENA — The Montana Senate Judiciary Committee voted on Feb. 16 on a bill requiring Montana to provide funding for the enforcement of 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 the agreement stated in the bill, unless the CSKT or Lake County withdraws consent to enforcement of PL280, the state shall reimburse Lake County for assuming criminal jurisdiction annually to the extent funds are appropriated by the legislature. This became a point of contention, however, as the state legislature has not appropriated a meaningful sum for this purpose in the past, a previous amount of appropriation set to $1, which led to a pending lawsuit between the county and the state. The lawsuit is part of what county commissioners called a “two-pronged approach” to getting the state to meet its obligation, including the bill proposal set before the Senate Judiciary Committee.
Introduced by Senator Greg Hertz, Senate Bill 127 obligates the State of Montana to enter an agreement on March 1 of each odd numbered year with Lake County to set the amount of annual reimbursement the county will be awarded for assuming criminal jurisdiction. If the state and county do not agree on an amount by this date each odd numbered year, or if the legislature does not appropriate the amount set in the agreement by May 1 of every odd numbered year, the state will assume the criminal jurisdiction beginning on July 1 of that year.
The bill was passed with a vote of seven to four, with three of the no votes done by proxy.
Senator Bob Brown of Thompson Falls, who voted in favor of the bill, commented, “As we know the resolution is asking the feds to live up to their obligation, and the county has no recourse here but to pull out, and if that actually happens, you got to think about the lines of communication and cooperation that’s been happening now between the sheriff’s office and the tribal enforcement. Those communications and agreements, those are going to go away and if we were to get to a point where we have to get a state police force there … the expense there and the problems that it would cause I think far outweigh the expense.”
Senator Susan Webber of Browning, who held the proxy votes for Senators Gross, Kelker, and Olsen, who were all absent from the committee, explained her votes opposing the bill. “As you know I represent the Confederated Salish and Kootenai Tribes, and speaking with the Lake County commissioners and knowing what I know about the Confederated Salish and Kootenai and what I know about Public Law 280, that the Tribes are in a wait and see mode to see what’s going to happen,” she stated. “We had SJ 5 to request that the federal government live up to their obligation to provide adequate policing services to reservations. Well, this bill is just in that category. It’s a letter to Santa Claus to me because we’re still asking for those services to adequately support policing services on the other reservations that are not 280. So, I have mixed feelings on this, but until I hear from the Tribes, I would have to vote a no on this … it’ll be a real soft no.”
SJ 5 is a bill proposed by Senator Bob Brown back in September of 2022 urging Congress to fully fund law enforcement in Indian Country. It passed its third reading with the Montana Senate on Jan. 24 and has been transmitted to the house as of Feb. 14.
Senator Barry Usher of Laurel, who voted in favor of the bill, shared that he had some reservations about doing so. “I think that Public Law 280 is a great cooperation and I think that, from what everybody’s told me, it works well. I do believe the federal government should be paying for this. I don’t believe that the residents in my five counties … I’m not quite sure those taxpayers should be paying for law enforcement in Lake County, but I think the only path forward right now is to move this bill, so I’m going to be a soft yes, and I would think that maybe Senator Webber can have discussions with the other tribes that she represents to see if this would work on their reservation also.”
The bill is now pending for vote in the Senate.