Walters: Walker is boxed in on Kenosha casino

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Steven Walters
Monday, September 23, 2013

The 60-day deadline that Gov. Scott Walker set for a decision on the Menominee Tribe's proposed Kenosha casino ends one month from today.

After the Bureau of Indian Affairs signed off on a Kenosha casino Aug. 23, Walker said he wanted a decision within 60 days.

More important, Walker also set three conditions for its approval: It must have local support. It can't increase “net” casino gaming—a term so vague it allows Walker to write his own definition. And there must be a “consensus” by Wisconsin's 11 tribes for the Kenosha casino.

Developments since have put Walker in a box on the Kenosha casino.

How Walker climbs out of that box will have implications for his future, in terms of both his re-election bid next year and a potential run for president in 2016. It's his next chance to make potent pre-election friends and enemies.

Why is the first-term governor boxed in on the Kenosha casino, which has the backing of area officials and, based on past referendums, local residents?

First, Milwaukee Mayor Tom Barrett and 15 Milwaukee-area Democratic legislators oppose it.

In their Sept. 10 letter to the governor, the 15 Democrats said a Kenosha casino would hurt the Milwaukee casino of the Potawatomi Tribe—a tribe they said has “helped create thousands of family-supporting jobs while investing in the community through diverse charitable giving.”

The Democrats then used the all-important “J” word: “Economic analysis by the city and county of Milwaukee found that the proposed casino could result in the loss of 3,000 direct and indirect jobs. Our community cannot afford to lose such a significant number of jobs.”

Kenosha's Democratic senator, Bob Wirch, did not sign that letter. He supports the casino, whose backers use their own “J” word number: Building the Kenosha casino would create 3,300 new jobs.

Second, seven Republican legislators now support the Kenosha casino and more are expected. Supporting it are Reps. Paul Tittl of Manitowoc, David Craig of Big Bend, Tyler August of Lake Geneva, Thomas Weatherston of Caledonia, Jeff Mursaw of Crivitz, Samathana Kerkman of Randall and Gary Tauchen of Bonduel.

Personal relationships can also be very important in these decisions.

Assembly Speaker Robin Vos started his Capitol career working for then-Republican Rep. Jim Ladwig, now Kenosha County executive and a casino backer. When Ladwig left the Assembly, Vos worked for his wife, Rep. Bonnie Ladwig, who then held that Assembly seat.

Another key Republican, Senate President Mike Ellis, thinks Walker is wrong to lay out conditions before the Menominee Tribe gets the Kenosha casino.

Ellis said the marketplace should decide whether a Kenosha casino is viable; a CVS pharmacy doesn't get to decide how close to it a new Walgreens can be built, for example.

Ellis, facing a tough re-election next year in which he will be criticized as a rubber-stamp “yes” for Walker's controversial changes to collective bargaining and expanding school choice, wants to be able to list his disagreements with the governor.

Third, the three tribes with the most profitable casinos—Potawatomi, Ho-Chunk and Oneida—won't agree to the Kenosha casino. The eight other tribes, including the Menominee, have asked Walker to approve it.

In a WisconsinEye interview, Walker made it clear that a “consensus—not a majority”—of the 11 tribes must back the Kenosha casino for it to be approved.

In the new second edition of her book, “Indian Nations of Wisconsin,” UW-Madison professor Patty Loew summarized the stalemate this way:

“Tribes that perceive themselves economically to be the 'have nots' continue to press for off-reservation casinos, efforts that will undoubtedly meet resistance from native nations with existing gaming operations in the area.”

Loew, a former Wisconsin Public Television host, is a member of the Bad River Band of Lake Superior Ojibwe. She said she's now an “advocate” on tribal issues.

In a WisconsinEye interview last week, Loew called Walker's three conditions “a successful attempt by state government to drive a wedge between the tribes.”

“To say, 'Sure, I'll support this casino, but you have to give one up, and you all have to agree'—that's not going to happen,” she said.

But Kenosha casino backers are quietly saying something else: We still have a month to go.

Steven Walters is a senior producer for the nonprofit public affairs channel WisconsinEye. This column reflects his personal perspective. Email stevenscwalters@gmail.com.

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