by Senator Jennifer Fielder, R - Montana State Senate District 7
March 24, 2014
Agreeing each vote should be an informed vote, fifty Montana legislators recently requested independent review of the proposed CSKT (Confederated Salish & Kootenai Tribes) Water Compact.
You may recall the Compact failed to meet legislative approval last year. The legislature wanted to study the proposal during the off year in 2014, but the governor vetoed the bill in keeping with the tribe’s"take it or leave it” ultimatum.
Legislators have been asking for in depth professional expertise on this matter because this particular law is complicated, contentious, and if ratified it would last FOREVER. It will undoubtedly come before us again in 2015.
This year Representatives Nancy Ballance, R - Ravalli County and Keith Regier, R - Flathead County presented a legislative interim committee requesting independent studies of the Compact. One third of the entire legislature signed the request.
The tribe’s attorney testified in opposition to the studies, contending the Compact doesn’t need to be looked at any further. But many legislators feel we need unbiased information to make a responsible decision.
"When HB 629 (the proposed CSKT Compact) was introduced it had a fiscal note attached but no legal review,” Rep. Regier testified."Legal Services Office of the legislative staff provides a legal review of bills that could ‘raise potential issues based on plain constitutional language conflicts and Federal Court and Montana Supreme Court case law.’ I was surprised that off reservation water rights and the development of a new water right regulatory agency (Unitary Management Ordinance)… did not trigger a legal review.”
Regier continued,"I was told by Legal Services that a legal review was not done because there is a lack of case law in these areas. With a lack of case law on these two issues that means the CSKT Compact is breaking new ground and setting precedent that can be far reaching. That makes it imperative that legislators have as much information possible before making a decision on this compact. Having a MEPA study, private property assessment, and an economic review will make each vote an informed vote.”
Many irrigators have testified against the current proposal because it would cut their historic water use in half, jeopardizing the ability to raise productive crops. Others believe having their water rights placed under authority of a tribal entity will violate their constitutional right to equal protection under U.S. & Montana law.
The fact that the Flathead reservation was opened to white settlement has resulted in a mixed land ownership pattern of private and tribal lands within the reservation boundary. The federal government has made promises to the tribe, homesteaders, and irrigators. In some cases the federal promises are contradictory to one another.
The legislature does not convene again until 2015, so there is time to study the laws, the facts, the proposal, and the probable impacts. I will continue in any way I can to seek out thorough and unbiased review of the compact.
It’s important to note there are Indian and non-Indian people who favor the compact as well as oppose it. Moving forward with caution and seeking independent analysis to get the facts on the table is the responsible thing to do.
It would be helpful if citizens and decision makers on both sides of the issue stay informed and engaged in thoughtful review and respectful dialogue. If we do that, we may be able to solve this.
"None of the legislators are saying there shouldn’t be a compact.” Regier concluded."There are just too many unanswered questions for them to feel comfortable supporting the compact in its present form. Some legislators are comfortable in supporting the compact now. Help me and others attain that same confidence. Let’s do the studies that will answer the questions the compact raises.”
This Saturday I will be at the Sanders County Expo at Plains High School from 10am to 3pm to share detailed information on some of the top legislative issues including the CSKT Water Compact, the state’s federal land study, and nationwide efforts to transfer federally managed public lands to the states. Please stop by if you would like to discuss these or any other issues important to you. I can also be reached at www.jenniferfielder.us