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Interior Asks Wisconsin Governor to Approve Off-Reservation Casino

Kevin Washburn, assistant secretary for Indian Affairs at the Department of the Interior, has asked Wisconsin’s Republican Gov. Scott Walker to approve an off-reservation casino for the Menominee Tribe, despite objections from another tribe in the state.

RELATED: Interior Approves Kenosha Casino; Menominee Urge Governor to Support its 3,300-Plus Jobs

In a letter to Walker dated August 23, Washburn says the tribe’s proposed $800-million facility in the Kenosha region, in the outskirts of Chicago, meets the Department’s two-part requirement for tribal gaming facilities on off-reservation lands placed into trust by Interior for tribes after 1988. This policy requires that a gaming establishment on such trust lands be in the best interest of the tribe and its citizens, and it calls for gaming on the trust lands not to be detrimental to the surrounding community.

“We believe that the Kenosha project would help to lift some of the tribe’s members out of jobs by providing jobs, not just in Kenosha, but in Northeast Wisconsin, where gaming revenues would provide governmental jobs and services for Menominee people,” Washburn writes to Walker. “It is also noteworthy that the tribe has assured us that gaming revenues would be used for governmental operations and services rather than distributed as per capita payments.”

Washburn makes a case in his letter and accompanying analysis that many of the jobs created in Wisconsin would be developed through revenue brought into the state from Illinois—a state, he notes, that has no federally recognized tribes.

The assistant secretary says the projects appears to be in the best interest of the tribe, but is it detrimental to the surrounding community? Washburn does not believe so, but the Milwaukee mayor opposes the plan, and leaders of the Forest Country Potawatomi Community believe a Menominee casino could be detrimental to their own tribal gaming interests. The Potawatomi community already operates one of the nation’s few off-reservation casinos in Milwaukee, which is about 40 miles north of Kenosha.

Washburn tells Walker that it is never an easy decision when the federal government, required to have trust responsibility over tribes’ interests, has to make a decision that could impact the livelihood of one tribe over another. But he concludes that the risk to the Potawatomi, a tribe of about 1,400 citizens, is outweighed by the benefits for the Menominee, a tribe of 8,700.

“We anticipate that the Menominee Kenosha project would have some modest economic effects on thee Potawatomi gaming operation in Milwaukee, but we are confident that the Potawatomi will continue to thrive,” Washburn concludes.

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RELATED: Interior Aims for Transparency in State-Tribal Casino Compact Process

Even though the federal government has signed off on the deal, Walker still must grant approval for it to go forward, given the rules established by the Indian Gaming Regulatory Act (IGRA).

Walker has recently said that he would like all 11 tribes in the state to agree on the project before he makes a decision, but the Potawatomi leaders have vowed not to consent, saying they believe the Menominee casino would be unjustly located on their historical lands.

Some Republican lawmakers in Wisconsin disagree with Walker’s current position, saying that believe he should be supporting an economic plan that would bring many jobs to a state that desperately needs them.

"This seems to me to be counter to the concept of free enterprise," Republican Senate President Mike Ellis, recently told the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel. "Are we going to start saying we can only have so many gas stations? Are we going to start saying we can only have so many hardware stores?"

On the federal level, U.S. Rep. Paul Ryan (R-Wisconsin), the GOP’s vice-presidential candidate in 2012, has also supported the Menominee plan. He personally asked the Interior Department during the George W. Bush administration to approve an off-reservation casino for the Menominee Tribe.

The Menominee project is part of a handful of such tribal-state deals that have ever been seriously considered by Interior. Since IGRA passed Congress, only three tribes, including the Potawatomi community, have successfully opened off-reservation facilities.

An Interior nod on the two-part off-reservation process is also relatively rare in Indian gaming world. To date, the Obama administration has approved two such applications for a pair of California tribes that continue to face legal and political challenges. A Michigan tribe had previously been granted federal approval, but the state ultimately rejected the plan. Oklahoma’s governor is also currently considering a gaming proposal by the Kaw Nation after Interior approved an off-reservation casino plan for the tribe in June.