Montana state capitol Helena
Credit: Eliza Wiley / MTFP

Lake County officials in northwestern Montana are threatening to withdraw law enforcement services to its portion on the Flathead Indian Reservation if the state does not reimburse the county for its policing. 

ICT indian country today
This story also appeared in ICT

The Montana Legislature has reviewed a package of bills aimed at securing reimbursement for Lake County’s participation in a federal law that gives the county authority to police tribal members that live on the reservation within county lines. 

Without the reimbursement, county officials said they will withdraw from Public Law 280, which would leave either the Confederated Salish and Kootenai Tribes or the state to take over criminal jurisdiction, something that Lake County lawmakers say would be expensive. 

“The county does not want to leave Public Law 280; the state does not want the county to leave public law 280. It’s working, it’s very successful, but it comes at an incredible cost,” said Rep. Joe Read, R- Ronan, sponsor of House Bill 479 that would fund the program, during a House hearing on March 31.

That bill seeks $2.5 million per year. Meanwhile, officials with the Confederated Salish and Kootenai Tribes, which is on the Flathead reservation, have so far not taken a position. 

Public Law 280 became law in 1953 and gives participating entities authority to assume criminal jurisdiction over tribal reservations. In 1963 Montana entered into the program, giving Lake County rights to provide law enforcement on the majority of the reservation.

The Flathead Reservation consists of nearly 1.2 million acres, and about two-thirds of that land is located within Lake County. County officials said the county spends more than 50 percent of its property tax revenues providing law enforcement and public safety services, despite the presence of a tribal police force. 

“There have been discussions that Lake County is going to have to potentially declare bankruptcy because it just cannot afford the process,” Read said during the hearing. 

If the state does not pay the reimbursement funds, administrators said Lake County would withdraw from the agreement. 

Legislators representing the Lake County district introduced three separate bills earlier this year to address the issue. Two of the bills were tabled last month. One bill aimed to set up future payments for the county, while the other sought a $42 million retroactive reimbursement for law enforcement services provided through the years.

“One of these bills was looking forward, one of these bills was looking back,” Read said.

Read’s bill would have the state reimburse a portion of law enforcement costs annually for an unspecified amount of time. This bill is considered Lake County’s last effort to request legislative approval for funding. 

The income tax revenue budget for the county’s 2023 fiscal year is approximately $13.2 million.  About $7.7 million of that funds public safety, according to the Lake County finance and budget director. That’s about 57 percent.

Lake County Commissioner Gale Decker told Montana Free Press the cost of policing on the Flathead reservation has affected several projects and departments.

“It’s taken away from our road budget, from our planning department, from our IT department,” Decker said. “You know, we can’t fund them the way they needed to be funded because so much of our budget is eaten up with public safety costs.”

In 2022, the county passed a resolution to withdraw from Public Law 280 on May 26 if the Legislature does not pass the reimbursement bill. 

Also, the county filed a lawsuit last year as another attempt to hold the state accountable for the policing costs. In the 2021 session, the Montana Legislature passed a House bill in which the state recognized its reimbursement obligation but only appropriated the amount of $1.

Read’s bill passed the House, 65-34, on Monday and has since been referred to the Senate Judiciary Committee for further deliberation.

This story is co-published by Montana Free Press and ICT, a news partnership that covers the Montana American Indian Caucus during the state’s 2023 legislative session. Funding is provided in part by the Headwaters Foundation.

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JoVonne Wagner is a member of the Blackfeet Nation located in Northwestern Montana. She was born and raised on the reservation, where she says she experienced and lived through all the amazing things about her home, but also witnessed all the negative aspects of rez life. Wagner is an alumni of NPR'S Next Generation Radio. JoVonne interned for Buffalo's Fire and she recently graduated from the University of Montana School of Journalism.