Legislature tables proposal on law enforcement

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HELENA — The agreement between Lake County and the Confederated Salish and Kootenai Tribes obligating the county to prosecute felony crimes committed by tribal members will likely remain in place for the foreseeable future.

Legislation to give the tribes the option of withdrawing from Public Law 280 was tabled in the state House Judiciary Committee on Monday, after a vote to forward the bill to the House floor failed 10-9. Committee Chair Alan Doane, a Representative from Bloomfield, was the only Republican to join the panel’s eight Democrats in voting for Senate Bill 310.

The measure was sponsored by Sen. Lea Whitford, D-Cut Bank.

The Lake County Commissioners in January passed a resolution supporting a withdrawl from the agreement — an arrangement unique among the state’s seven federally recognized tribes.

The commissioners have argued that the county’s declining revenues have left it unable to afford the extra caseload without additional funding from the state or federal government.

In an interview Monday, commissioners Gale Decker and Bill Barron said they didn’t support the bill as it was written, but had hoped an amendment would also give the county the option to withdraw.

During the panel’s executive action, committee members acknowledged an amendment had been drafted to do just that, but no one on the panel made a motion to amend the bill before it went to a vote. Because the bill already passed the Senate, the upper chamber would have had to suspend its rules to reconsider an amended version.

“We think Public Law 280 is good for the reservation and good for the county, but again, our decision to sign the resolution of intent to withdraw was strictly motivated by finances,” Decker said, referring to a resolution the commissioners passed last year.

A bill proposed by Rep. Greg Hertz, R-Polson, would have obligated the state to cover the county’s estimated $4 million in annual expenses under the agreement. It was defeated earlier in the session, and with Whitford’s bill likely dead, the commissioners said they don’t see a path forward.

“We’ll continue to pay the bills but we may have to take money from some of our other departments, the roads department or wherever, to find some money to pay for it,” Decker said.

Noting that the county is still in discussions with the tribes about possible tribal or federal cost-sharing, he added, “We haven’t been told ‘absolutely no,’ but we haven’t been given any reason for being hopeful that there would be some money coming our way to help with it.”

Barron noted that the county currently has a court order to build a new jail and court facilities to handle the volume of criminal cases. But with cost estimates for the jail ranging from $15 million to $22 million, the commissioners are at a loss for how to fund it with county tax revenues averaging just $12 million per year.

“We’re going to get sued with our jail if we don’t do something,” Barron said.

Lake County Sheriff Don Bell said Monday he didn’t weigh in on Senate Bill 310, but supports maintaining the law-enforcement arrangement.

Tribal attorneys have been critical of the county’s narrative in the past, noting that they already contribute law-enforcement and other measures that benefit the county.

During the House panel’s March 20 hearing on Whitford’s bill, Tribal Council Chairman Vernon Finley endorsed the measure, stating it “provides an avenue for a continued study and negotiation, and provides a mechanism for correction of a couple of the difficult situations.”

While the tribes previously supported withdrawing from the agreement when the issue surfaced 25 years ago, spokesman Rob McDonald said Monday that they are weighing whether to support continuing under the agreement.

From day one, the county has made it clear that their decision to pursue this has been about the dollar, so that’s been included in the discussions,” McDonald said. “We’re still in the exploration, and have not landed on a particular option.”

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