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Wisconsin tribes reliant on casinos hit hard by pandemic

'Gaming, for the most part, is what we survive on'

MADISON, Wis. (AP) — Tribes in Wisconsin that rely mostly on casino revenue to support their communities are struggling to provide government services after the pandemic forced businesses to shut down to curb the spread of the virus. 

About 241 tribes, including the 11 in Wisconsin, stand to lose about $22.4 billion, more than half their projected revenue this year, according to the National Indian Gaming Association. The organization is dedicated to protecting the welfare and sovereignty of tribes, the Wisconsin State Journal reported.

"Gaming, for the most part, is what we survive on," said Ernest Stevens Jr., a citizen of Wisconsin's Oneida Nation and chairman of National Indian Gaming Association. "In a lot of cases, if we don't have gaming, we don't have dollars. We don't have a tax base."

All the state's casinos made nearly $1.3 billion in gross revenue based on nearly $17.6 billion in wagers made in the 2018-19 fiscal year, according to recent figures from the Wisconsin Department of Administration, which regulates the compacts that govern tribal gaming.

"It's really pretty much crippled our tribal economy," said Marlon WhiteEagle, president of the Ho-Chunk Nation, whose six Wisconsin casinos generate more than 80% of the tribe's annual operating budget. "The casinos are really the bread and butter of our funding."

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Forest County Potawatomi Community has lost more than $70 million in net revenue from the tribe's two casinos, which has resulted in many government offices to close and 60 percent of its employees to be furloughed, Attorney General Jeff Crawford said.

"We've had to cut our tribal government in half," Crawford noted. "We essentially don't have an effective operating budget for providing services. We are down to essential government services to take care of the needs of our members."

Almost three quarters of tribal casinos, including 11 of the 26 in Wisconsin, had reopened as of June 18, according to the American Gaming Association. But Stevens said they are not operating at full capacity.

Ho-Chunk Gaming reopened its Madison location late May with less than a third of its 1,300 slot and poker machines in accordance with Dane County's public health guidelines. Visitors and staff must wear masks and undergo temperature checks. Its Nekoosa casino has opened, and there are plans to open others on June 29.

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