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Gianforte supports limited financial support for law enforcement in Flathead Reservations. • Daily Montanan

In a recent letter, Gov. Greg Gianforte said he is willing to provide temporary financial assistance to Lake County for three years during the transition period after the county withdrew from law enforcement on the Flathead Indian Reservation.

The financial burden of fulfilling the agreement, estimated at $4 million, was the biggest reason for the county to withdraw from a decades-long agreement, which commissioners officially did Monday.

Commissioners hope the state will give $2.5 million to the county that the governor vetoed last year.

Lake County commissioners will meet with Gianforte Tuesday afternoon to discuss a transition strategy, according to Commissioner Gale Decker.

Decker said the county will still operate as PL-280 exists until a transition plan is in place.

The state assumed criminal jurisdiction over the Flathead Reservation in 1963 under an agreement passed by Congress called Public Law 280, or PL-280. The county has provided law enforcement under the terms of this agreement for years, but withdrew due to costs.

But on the ground, Decker said, nothing changed as of Monday.

“Where we are now is we continue to exercise jurisdiction, Lake County, just because the state and the FBI have said they can’t do it and someone has to do it,” Decker told the Daily Montanan. “In the interest of public safety, we will continue to do so.”

The governor’s office and commissioners disagree on the status of the official withdrawal, but in his letter to commissioners, Gianforte also explained why he was opposed to the state footing the entire bill.

“If the state were to fully and indefinitely fund the costs that Lake County voluntarily incurred when it agreed to implement PL 280, it would place an unsustainable burden on the state’s general resources, inconsistent with the way law enforcement is funded in all other states in Montana. province, and lead to requests from other provinces that would legitimately seek financial support for their local expenses once the precedent is set,” Gianforte said.

Gianforte said he would support limited funding for a period of up to three years as the county moves to a long-term solution “that is consistent with the way similar expenditures are funded in all other local jurisdictions in Montana.”

If the county stops providing law enforcement services under PL-280 altogether, and if no other action is taken, the federal government would assume jurisdiction over the reservation.

The governor’s office also said the commission had not sent the necessary document to terminate the agreement, so the governor was not in a position to issue a proclamation saying as much. By law, a governor’s proclamation follows the withdrawal letter.

The commissioners said they did send them, and their withdrawal will take effect Monday — with or without the governor’s proclamation.

The two sides will meet Tuesday in Helena to discuss what a transition out of the agreement would look like, Decker said. He said the meeting would not be open to the public because it would involve a litigation strategy.

The Confederated Salish and Kootenai tribes have handled crimes on the Flathead Indian Reservation since the 1990s. The federal government monitors crimes on other reservations in the state.

In 2023, Gianforte vetoed a bill that would have funded the effort, saying there should have been more restrictions on what the money could be used for.

Last fall, commissioners passed a resolution to withdraw the county from the agreement — which they said took effect Monday.

Gianforte told commissioners in March that the only tool left to answer the question of who is responsible for law enforcement is to withdraw the state from the agreement entirely.

Last week, Gianforte’s office claimed that the commissioners’ withdrawal is not technically official, and therefore the proclamation is not yet required.

Last week, Gianforte’s legal counsel sent a letter to the commission claiming the governor’s office had not received the resolution needed to divest the county of PL-280.

In November, the commission adopted a resolution changing the date of delivery to the governor from an earlier resolution calling for a withdrawal from the agreement. In the letter sent Thursday, attorney Anita Milanovich said the committee sent its resolution to change the date, but not the originally adopted resolution to withdraw.

“As such, I must conclude that a proclamation from the governor is inappropriate at this time,” Milanovich said.

In a news release Friday, Lake County commissioners said they are “confident” the county followed the legal process for the governor to issue his proclamation. But Decker said Monday that the county’s withdrawal “is effective today with or without a proclamation from the governor.”

In a separate letter sent Thursday, Gianforte said he would not be able to issue a proclamation, citing Milanovich’s reasoning in her letter, but also said local law enforcement is a “local responsibility and not a state responsibility.”

Montana U.S. Attorney Jesse Laslovich told commissioners last month that the FBI would likely only prosecute “big fish” cases, meaning fewer cases are prosecuted and more “threats” are created within the community.

The CSKT released a statement last week saying the tribe continues to monitor the situation and remains committed to local, state and federal partners. A spokesman for the tribe did not comment on whether there would be tribal representation at Tuesday’s meeting between the county and the governor’s office.

Last month, Attorney General Austin Knudsen met with Lake County commissioners and said he would help promote communication between the commission and the governor’s office. However, Decker said Monday that the commission hasn’t heard from Knudsen since then, but Decker says that doesn’t mean Knudsen hasn’t said anything to the governor’s office.

A spokesperson for the attorney general’s office did not immediately respond to questions confirming Knudsen’s involvement.

Decker said he hopes for continued conversations about what the transition plan will be if the county and likely state fully withdraw from the agreement. But in the meantime, even though the province has formally withdrawn, it will still implement the agreement.

“We will continue to exercise our jurisdiction,” Decker said. “We’re going to keep the people of Lake County safe.”