Wisconsin governor skirts touchy casino decision
- Article by: TODD RICHMOND
- Associated Press
- August 30, 2014 - 11:55 AM
KENOSHA, Wis. — Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker portrays himself as a man of action, willing to take on tough political fights. It's a huge theme in his re-election campaign, underscored in his 2013 political memoir, "Unintimidated."
However, as he enters the homestretch of a closely contested race, Walker has been trying to stay clear of a touchy issue for voters in densely populated southeastern Wisconsin.
Will he approve the Menominee Nation's plans for a massive casino here? Saying yes could open the door for thousands of jobs for the region. It also could cost the state tens of millions of dollars.
Walker has delayed a decision until well after the November election. He hasn't offered any hints about which way he's leaning, drawing criticism from Democrats and some residents who say it's time for the governor to reveal his intentions.
Emily Alderin, 30, who lives in a subdivision across from the potential casino, said she wants to know where Walker stands before she goes to the polls. She said the casino would bring jobs, but she's worried about traffic and unseemly activity in her neighborhood.
"It's like the big elephant in the room," she said. "It's been thought about and people are considering it, but nobody's talking about it."
The Menominee make their home on a remote northeastern Wisconsin reservation. They've been looking to open a casino in a shuttered 220-acre dog track in Kenosha, a city on the Wisconsin-Illinois border within easy driving distance of many thousands of Chicago-area gamblers. The federal government granted its permission a year ago, leaving the governor with the final decision.
The tribe maintains the casino would create thousands of jobs in a metropolitan area where the July unemployment rate was 8.1 percent and help pull the tribe's members out of poverty. Democrats and labor union leaders are demanding a quick OK. Opponents, led by a group called Enough Already! WI, insist a state with 25 tribal casinos doesn't need more gambling.
Walker, who is mulling a 2016 presidential bid, has made a national reputation with his willingness to wade into tough issues. His plan for addressing state budget problems by stripping most public workers of their union rights drew protests that paralyzed the state Capitol in 2011. He has also spent months sparring with prosecutors over whether he illegally coordinated with conservative groups during the recall campaign.
But Walker says he wants the state's 10 other tribes to sign off on the Kenosha casino before he'd approve it. That's where things get complicated.
The Forest County Potawatomi has refused to get on board. That tribe runs a lucrative casino in Milwaukee, about 40 miles away, and doesn't want the competition.
Like all Wisconsin tribes that offer gambling, the Potawatomi has agreed to give the state a share of the revenue. According to the agreement, the Potawatomi could seek to reduce its payments and receive a refund if it loses business to a new Kenosha casino. The Walker administration has estimated the give-back could amount to $100 million.
The state budget already is on track to be in the red next year. A big payout could exacerbate the shortfall and expose Walker to criticism about his management of the state's finances.
Negotiations on a compromise have continued without resolution, and in June the Potawatomi withheld a scheduled $25 million payment to the state.
Walker has pushed off a decision to February, well after the election. He said he needs time to figure out a deal. The Menominee have offered to compensate the state for any reductions in the Potawatomi's payments.
"We shouldn't be talking about it on the campaign trail because it's a decision that shouldn't be made based on politics," Walker said.
His Democratic opponent, Mary Burke, hasn't made the casino an issue in the race yet. She has focused her campaign on her own plan for improving the economy. Pressed by reporters in Milwaukee, Burke said she would support the casino if it meant jobs.
The Menominee are so far withholding criticism.
"I think (Burke and Walker) are being cautious in seeing how this plays out," tribal legislator Gary Besaw said.
But some voters in southeastern Wisconsin, still suffering from declines in the manufacturing economy, are losing patience.
Michael Schumacher, a 64-year-old Kenosha author, said Walker is waffling when the area needs jobs.
"It's too hot an issue for them to handle," Schumacher said with disgust. "The best thing to do (for the candidates) is try to pretend it doesn't exist."
Ray Peeples, a 54-year-old Kenosha pastor who worries the projected job gains are exaggerated, wants the candidates to lay out their stances.
"Take a stand," he said, "one way or the other."
© 2016 Star Tribune