A look at the issues around a new Wisconsin casino

Mary Burke (D), left, and Scott Walker (R)
Mary Burke (D), left, and Scott Walker (R)

MADISON (AP) – Republican Gov. Scott Walker has put off a decision on whether to approve the Menominee Nation’s plans for a new off-reservation casino in Kenosha until after the November election. It’s a politically charged issue that puts Walker in a tight spot: If he approves the project he could help create thousands of jobs, but he could also alienate another tribe that has a competing casino in the area.

Neither Walker nor Democratic opponent Mary Burke is talking about the casino on the campaign trail. Here’s a rundown of the key elements surrounding the Menominee’s plan:

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A BOOST OUT OF POVERTY: The Menominee tribe has been pushing to open an off-reservation casino for more than two decades, saying the facility would help pull members out of poverty. The tribe operates two casinos on its northeastern Wisconsin reservation but wants to add an $800 million facility about 200 miles southeast in Kenosha, near the Illinois border. The tribe believes it would attract gamblers from the Chicago area.

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SCANDAL: Kenosha County voters approved the idea of the casino in a 2004 advisory referendum, but things fell apart. The tribe’s developer was indicted for making illegal campaign contributions to then-President George W. Bush and then-Wisconsin Gov. Jim Doyle. Later, the Bush administration announced that tribal casinos far from a tribe’s reservation would be harder to approve than closer ones. President Barack Obama repealed Bush’s policy and the U.S. Department of the Interior gave the Menominee the go-ahead in August 2013, giving Walker the final say.

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THE GOVERNOR’S CONDITIONS: Walker laid out three conditions the Menominee had to meet before he’d approve the casino. The casino must have community support, it can’t create a net increase in gambling in the state and Wisconsin’s 10 other tribes must sign off. The Menomonie launched a public relations blitz, claiming the $800 million project would create 10,000 jobs, providing a boon for Racine and Kenosha counties’ economies, as well as generate $35 million in annual payments to the state.

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PUSHBACK: A group called Enough Already! WI formed in opposition to the project. The group contends Wisconsin’s gambling market is shrinking and can’t support another casino. Fearful another casino would suck profits from their facility in Milwaukee, the Forest County Potawatomi has refused to approve the Menominee’s plan.

What’s more, the Potawatomi’s gambling agreement with the state says if the governor approves a Kenosha casino the Potawatomi could seek to reduce its payments to offset losses and could ask for a refund of past payments – an amount the Walker administration has estimated at $100 million. Word broke Tuesday that the tribe withheld a scheduled $25 million payment and placed the money in a reserve account because tribal leaders are worried the state won’t be able to make the refund payments.

The Menominee have offered to offset the reductions in Potawatomi payments.

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POSTPONEMENT: Walker has continued to delay his decision on the casino, which was originally due in August 2013. His administration hired a law firm in December to study the project’s economic impact – even though that wasn’t one of his criteria.  He now says he doesn’t have to make the call until February, well after the Nov. 4 election.

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CAMPAIGN SILENCE: Neither Burke nor Walker has made an issue of the casino on the campaign trail. Pressed by reporters, Burke said that if elected she would make a quick decision based on whether the casino would create a significant number of jobs. Walker says he needs extra time to figure out how to reach a compromise on the Potawatomi’s compensation if he approves the casino.

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