MADISON, Wis. (AP) - The Wisconsin Senate president on Wednesday questioned Gov. Scott Walker's criteria for approving a new tribal casino, saying the standards contradict the free market system.
The Menominee Nation has been pushing for years to build an $800 million off-reservation casino in Kenosha and finally won federal approval for the project last week. Tribal officials have promised the casino would create thousands of jobs and boost southeastern Wisconsin's economy.
Walker, a Republican, has the final say on the casino. He has said approval hinges on no new net gambling, community support and consensus from the state's other 10 tribes.
The Ho-Chunk Nation doesn't support the proposal, contending the casino would be located in their traditional homelands. But Menominee's major opponent, though, is the Forest County Potawatomi; that tribe runs a casino in Milwaukee about 40 miles north of Kenosha and don't want to compete with the Menominee. They've been trying to make the case that the Menominee's job creation claims are exaggerated and the state's gambling market is saturated.
Senate President Mike Ellis of Neenah, one of the most powerful and longest-serving Republicans in the Legislature, told reporters during an impromptu question-and-answer session that he was surprised at Walker's criteria, especially when the governor is trying to create jobs.
He called the standards a "curious contradiction" to the free enterprise system, saying they're the equivalent of giving Menards the ability to block a new Fleet Farm store.
"I can't understand why we have this curious contradiction today," Ellis said. "Do we say to stores you have to get permission from the competition before you can open a new store?" I'm sorry, but I'm sure McDonald's didn't like it when Hardee's came in."
A Walker spokesman declined comment. Potawatomi lobbyist Ken Walsh and the tribe's attorney general, Jeff Crawford, also didn't immediately return messages.
Enough Already! WI, a group that opposes the expansion of off-reservation gambling in the state, released a statement Wednesday saying free market philosophies don't apply to tribal casinos, which need state approval. The group called Walker's criteria "common-sense standards."
"Despite the grand promises being made by the Menominee Tribe, there's a recognition that tribal gaming isn't the great elixir, but rather a complex economic model wrought with social challenges, local small business threats and a cannibalization of the finite gaming market," the group's executive director, Brian Nemoir, said in the statement.
Menominee tribal Chairman Craig Corn said the tribe respects the governor's criteria.
"There is only one question the governor has to answer," Corn said. "That is, does he concur with the project?"
Ellis, who describes himself as a "moderate to conservative but independent voice," has held his Senate seat since 1982. His stance on the casino isn't the first time he's clashed with Walker.
He opposed a plan in the governor's 2013-15 budget that would have allowed private school vouchers in nine districts with no enrollment caps after the second year of the spending deal while keeping public school spending frozen. He ultimately worked out a deal with Walker that allowed public school spending to increase and capped voucher school enrollment at 1,000 students statewide.
Ellis hasn't faced a challenger in the last three elections. State Rep. Penny Bernard Schaber, D-Appleton, plans to challenge him next year, though.
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