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Forest County Potawatomi compact: matches state demand

MADISON, Wis. - The Forest County Potawatomi Tribe has renewed a gaming compact with Wisconsin on terms that will help the state salvage its budget while helping itself stabilize expansion plans.

By signing a so-called "open-ended" gaming compact with the administration of state Gov. Jim Doyle, the tribe secured a 25-year window of stability. That will make expansion of its gaming operations much more feasible to the all-important financiers.

In return, the tribe has agreed to increase its payments-from-gaming to the state by $78 million over the terms of a previous compact, helping the whole state overcome a $3.2 billion budgetary shortfall.

And it has agreed to give up "zone exclusivity" for its casino, opening the door to other gaming operations in the vicinity. Whatever the ultimate business purposes of this concession, the Forest County Potawatomi have clearly stated one charitable purpose on a regional scale: to assist the nearby Menominee Tribe in establishing a casino operation.

At a time when states nationwide are revisiting their compacts with casino-wealthy tribes in an effort to shore up budget deficits, this recently inked agreement has already been mentioned as a model of how to proceed. Gov. Doyle certainly hopes it will prove a model in Wisconsin, where other casino tribes are being counted on for help with the budget. In California, where the budget gap is more like an abyss after the state's staggeringly inept mismanagement of electricity deregulation, tribes are under particular gubernatorial pressure to pony up. And in Washington state, where the attempted exaction of tribute from tribal casinos is coupled with the Bonneville Power Administration's curtailment of tribal preferences in power allocations, Jamestown S'Klallam tribal chairman W. Ron Allen said it takes time for tribes to build an economic base. "The light at the end of the tunnel should not be eclipsed by collections." He added that there is "nothing to" the state theme that increasing casino payments to the state treasury is an issue of equity and fairness.

Just as not every tribe can be expected to approve the Forest County Potawatomi concessions, not every Wisconsin lawmaker got behind the new compact. Some Republicans promised to file a constitutional challenge with the state Supreme Court on grounds the agreement between the tribe and the governor neglected legislative powers. Others said a 25-year open-ended contract for a gaming tribe was bad precedent and bad policy.