Politics & Government
1:00 am
Mon August 25, 2014

With Election Looming, Will Walker Approve Kenosha Casino?

Gov. Scott Walker has until February to decide whether Kenosha gets a huge tribal casino. But might he announce a decision sooner?

Questions are swirling about whether the tight governor’s race may hasten things. Looming over Walker, is his campaign promise to create 250,000 jobs.

Tribal leaders from the Menomonee Nation say a casino would create jobs. But, two other tribes say their Wisconsin casinos would lose business.

The federal government approved the Menomonee Nation’s plan a year ago. It calls for building an 800 million dollar casino complex at the old dog racing track in Kenosha.

The federal nod put the decision in Gov. Walker’s hands, and he quickly laid out criteria for his approval. No net increase in gaming in Wisconsin, and the support of all 11 tribes here. Two remain opposed.

The Forest County Potawatomi and the Ho-Chunk Nation fear a new casino would harm theirs. Walker seemed to struggle with the decision.

“One, excited about the prospects in any plan of helping the people of Kenosha and Racine County who desperately need more jobs, both permanently and in construction, but at the same time we want to find a way to mitigate potential job loss which could conceivably be brokered through some kind of financial agreement,” Walker says.

Walker postponed making a decision - giving the tribes time to reach consensus, and he won a 180-day extension from the feds. One person who doesn’t think that much time is needed, is the governor’s opponent in November, Democrat Mary Burke. At a recent appearance in Milwaukee, Burke criticized the governor for dragging his feet.

“As governor, I would have had an impartial study done immediately. That should have been in a time frame of three to six months and then been able to get that decision made, so the people of Kenosha would know how to proceed,” Burke says.

If the governor takes a long time, it may mean he’ll approve the casino, according to Democratic Assemblyman Peter Barca. He’s from Kenosha and is one of the plan’s biggest supporters.

“The projection is it will bring five million more tourists into Wisconsin. That’s a huge economic plus for the whole region and the permanent jobs that will come out of it and the development of a convention center and other added developments that are expected along with this, is enormous,” Barca says.

While Barca believes the economic development potential is too great to reject, George Ermert predicts the governor will turn down the plan. Ermert is spokesman for the Potawatomi – the tribe has a big gambling operation in Milwaukee, and a new hotel. He says the problem, is that the Kenosha developer would be the Seminole Tribe of Florida.

“Gov. Walker is going to find that this project is not in the best interest of Wisconsin, to approve a project that sends hundreds of millions of dollars to Florida,” Ermert says.

Ermert doesn’t foresee Gov. Walker making a decision before the November election. However, UW-La Crosse Political Science Professor Joe Heim thinks there could be an “October surprise.” He says if polls continue to show Walker and Burke in a dead heat, the governor might be inclined to approve the casino, in an effort to win votes from Kenosha and Racine.

“His primary campaign theme is things are getting better, we’re moving in the right direction, and if he could do something to show he’s producing even more jobs, I’m sure that certainly wouldn’t hurt his re-election chances,” Heim says.

Walker’s Department of Administration has released a statement. It says a national law firm is still studying the casino issue. The February deadline cannot be extended.