Judge sides with state in dispute over funding of PL 280
Lake County to pull out of a decades-old agreement after saying it can no longer afford the costs of law enforcement on the Flathead Reservation.
A District Court judge has sided with the state government in an ongoing dispute between Lake County and Montana over how to pay for law enforcement on the Flathead Indian Reservation.
But while Judge Amy Eddy sided with the state in her ruling on Nov. 9, she was also critical of its decision to only offer Lake County $1 to help cover a bill that often exceeds millions of dollars each year — a sum she called “patently absurd.”
Since the 1960s, law enforcement on the northwest Montana reservation has been handled locally, rather than by federal officers, in a unique agreement between the state and tribe under what is called Public Law 280. The Flathead is the only reservation in the state under this agreement. About two-thirds of the reservation is located within the boundaries of Lake County. The agreement has been lauded as a success for decades, as it allows local officers and local prosecutors to handle local crimes, rather than federal agents from far away. (Since the 1990s, misdemeanor crimes have been handled by the tribal court system).
But for the last few years officials in Lake County have said law enforcement duties have been wreaking havoc on its budget. According to the county, the agreement is costing local taxpayers more than $4 million annually.
In years past, county officials said the bill was easier to pay thanks to taxes generated by the Kerr Dam (now called the Séliš Ksanka QÍispé Dam), but once the dam was sold to the Confederated Salish and Kootenai Tribes, that revenue dried up. There was also no way for Lake County to pull out of the agreement; only the state or tribe could.
Because the state has entered into the agreement with the tribe, Lake County officials have said it is the state’s responsibility to cover the associated costs.
Since 2017, there have been multiple attempts in the Legislature to get the state to help foot the bill. In 2021, one of those bills finally passed, but then the state only appropriated $1 to the cause. But during that session, the state also gave Lake County the ability to withdraw from the agreement if it wanted. However, Lake County has been hesitant to do so over concerns about public safety.
During the 2023 session, House Bill 479 passed both chambers and authorized the state to pay Lake County $2.5 million annually for two years to cover law enforcement costs. But then in May, Gov. Greg Gianforte vetoed the bill. In his veto letter, the governor said Lake County “wants all of the benefits of exercising jurisdiction under Public Law 280 while shifting all financial responsibility to the state,” adding that the bill was a “slippery slope” that could open the door to other counties asking for money.
Yet even before Gianforte vetoed the bill, Lake County was looking for alternatives to force the state to pay, including filing a lawsuit against it last year. In that suit, the county alleged that the agreement between the state and the tribe was an “unfunded mandate.”
But in her ruling, Judge Eddy said that while it was unfair for the state to withhold funds (particularly “during a legislative session noteworthy for its unprecedented budget surplus”), there was nothing in state law that required it to appropriate a “particular dollar amount” to the county.
“The plain language of the statute obligates the State to reimburse only ‘to the extent’ the Legislature sees fit to appropriate funds,” Eddy wrote. “Given this reality, coupled with the ability of Lake County to withdraw consent, this Court lacks the authority to grant the relief Lake County seeks. If the financial burden Lake County bears is unacceptable, which by all accounts it appears to be, its remedy is to withdraw.”
This week, the county did just that and informed the governor’s office of its intent to withdraw from law enforcement duties as they pertain to tribal members. The governor has six months to sign a proclamation releasing the county of its duties. The county also plans to appeal Eddy’s decision to the Montana Supreme Court.