Walker Not Budging On Kenosha Casino

Shockwaves continue to flow through southeastern Wisconsin over Governor Scott Walker's January 23 decision against the Menominee Nation's proposed $800 million Kenosha casino, operated by Hard Rock International (l.). Ten bipartisan state legislators presented Walker a letter urging him to reconsider, which he said he can't and won't do. Menominee leaders suggested they may consider legal action.

Ten bipartisan Wisconsin legislators—six Republicans and four Democrats–recently hand-delivered a letter to Governor Scott Walker urging him to reconsider his January 23 decision to deny the Menominee Nation’s proposed 0 million off-reservation casino in Kenosha on the former Dairyland Greyhound Park site.

The letter said, “This is an opportunity for an $800 million investment in our state, thousands of jobs, millions of tourists and a billion dollars to the state treasury over the coming years. The 9,000 Menominee tribal members and thousands looking for work in southeastern Wisconsin are depending on this development to lift them out of poverty. The benefits are too great, the opportunity is too extraordinary, for you to not give this a second look. To be frank, the vast majority of our constituents are more than disappointed in your action. We urge you to take the full time allowable before February 19, 2015 to give this fluid and rapidly changing situation your full consideration.”

The group followed up with a news conference at the state Capitol, where they were joined by members of the Menominee Tribe, southeastern Wisconsin union workers and Kenosha Mayor Keith Bosman.

“It may seem like we’re beating a dead horse, but you have to fight to the end,” Bosman said. “I think it’s unfortunate that so much power would be in the hands of one person on this. I think that’s a problem, but those were the rules.”

Walker immediately stated he would not change his position. “I had a hundred million reasons I had to say no. That would cost us, if I had approved the casino, about $100 million right now, and potentially two to three to four times that in the future,” he said.

The lawmakers said Walker could rescind his rejection prior to the February 19 deadline set by the Bureau of Indian Affairs, but Walker said, “My understanding is, and we’ll again verify that, is it’s like signing a bill. You don’t get to go back and un-sign a bill. Once you’ve notified the Bureau of Indian Affairs of your decision, that’s it.”

Specifically, Walker said approving the casino put Wisconsin at risk of paying hundreds of millions of dollars to the Forest County Potawatomi Tribe to make up for losses the Kenosha casino may have caused at its lucrative Milwaukee casino in accordance with their compact, negotiated with former Governor Jim Doyle. Last year the Potawatomi withheld a $25 million payment to the state in anticipation that the state would not be able to fulfill its obligation to the tribe if the Kenosha casino were approved.

Walker spokeswoman Laurel Patrick said, “The bottom line is, due to the compacts negotiated by former Governor Jim Doyle, the current cost to taxpayers of approving the proposed casino project is up to $100 million, and the long-term economic hit to the state budget would be a potential loss of hundreds of millions of dollars. The risk to the state’s taxpayers was too great to approve the casino.”

However, Marc Marotta, the former Doyle administration cabinet secretary who negotiated the compacts, said, “Governor Walker may have valid reasons to reject the Kenosha casino, but the Potawatomi compact signed nearly 10 years ago is certainly not one of them. Nothing in the compact would have resulted in the state losing money. This is particularly true given that Governor Walker signed a compact only a few days ago with the Menomonee tribe that eliminated the risk that the Kenosha casino would cost the state any money. In fact, it should be obvious to anyone that the state would receive more money from two casinos than one casino.”

The day before Walker announced his decision, the Menominee Gaming Authority and Hard Rock International, which would have operated the casino, announced they would post a bond to protect taxpayers from gaming revenue losses at the Forest County Potawatomi’s Milwaukee casino as required by the Potawatomi compacts, including any obligations to refund previous payments. That bond was in addition to the Menominee compact that guaranteed the state $1 billion in Indian gaming revenue over the next 25 years. The casino would have created 3,906 net new jobs for the state.

House Assembly Minority Leader Peter Barca, a Kenosha Democrat, accused Walker of putting his presidential aspirations ahead of the interests of Wisconsin residents. “If he’s being honest about his decision, it is built on false pretenses. Taxpayers wouldn’t be on the hook for one single cent. I wish he would come to Kenosha and Racine and talk to business and community leaders. I think he’d find out how frustrated and angry people are with this decision. If he did that instead of going back to Iowa and New Hampshire, I think he would understand that anger,” Barca said. “It’s a complete failure if you’ve got a governor who can’t work to bring people together, given all the power given to the governor of this state. It’s incredibly painful for people in southeast Wisconsin.”

Senator Robert Wirch, a Democrat from Somers, said it was “a dark day for economic development in the state of Wisconsin. Governor Walker ran on creating jobs in Wisconsin, and now that he is running for president, he is no longer invested in the Wisconsin comeback. The decision made by Governor Walker is shameful. He has turned his back on the wishes of a majority of people in southeastern Wisconsin.”

State Rep. Tod Ohnstad, a Kenosha Democrat, agreed that Walker’s decision “is about presidential politics, “since several conservative Iowa politicians recently told Walker allowing the casino could be used against him in the primaries. “It’s just too bad that 600-something ultra-conservative voters in Iowa trump voters in Kenosha who voted twice in favor of the project,” Ohnstad said, adding he “really felt bad for the Menominee,” after they spent millions on the Kenosha project, which was approved by the U.S. Department of Interior last August.

Menominee Tribe Vice Chair Crystal Chapman-Chevalier suggested the tribe may file a lawsuit over Walker’s decision. An official statement from the Menominee stated, “It is our belief that this project would have improved the lives of the nearly 9,000 members of the tribe. Instead, one tribe—the Forest County Potawatomi—and one goal of Governor Walker—the presidency—has led to a ‘No’ for our people. The tribe and our partners at Hard Rock International will meet in the next few days to discuss any options we have.”

Eric Olson, project director for the Kenosha casino, added, “We are kind of baffled by the decision, and it’s just a hard pill to swallow for the 9,000 members of the tribe. The only ones we see coming out ahead on this are the Potawatomi.” In their official statement, it’s no surprise the Potawatomi said, “Governor Walker and his administration gave the Kenosha casino project a thorough review, and we agree with his determination that this project is not in the best interest of Wisconsin.”

The Ho-Chunk Nation also had opposed the Kenosha casino. Ho-Chunk President Jon Greendeer said, “We were relieved that there was a decision made. We are glad that this has been finalized and it does give us the prospects of moving forward,” referring to the tribe’s proposed off-reservation casino in Beloit. Under the Ho-Chunk’s compact, the tribe is allowed to build another casino in Wisconsin. Beloit City Manager Larry Arft said he had been told the Bureau of Indian Affairs sat on the Ho-Chunk’s application until Walker had made a decision. Now Greendeer and Arft hope the project will move quickly.

Roy Berger, vice president of Dairyland Greyhound Park, said he’s not certain what will become of the site, on which the Menominee have held an option long before the racetrack closed in 2009. “As we sit here right now, that project is dead. The governor’s veto decision was win or lose. Right now, it’s lose. The Menominee kept it going 12 or 15 years. How much labor, sweat and money are you going to keep putting in this? It was so good, and it gets beat for inconsequential reasons.”

Still, Walker said southeastern Wisconsin has no reason to wring its hands. “We’ve helped through our policies and direct actions to provide literally thousands of jobs to Kenosha County and southeastern Wisconsin in the last couple years. We’re committed to that area. It’s one of the areas with most rapid growth, both companies starting and growing there, as well as those coming over the border from Illinois and other places around the world. Kenosha County is doing very well and will be doing very well in the future, because of efforts unrelated to this.”