"All we are seeking is a fair resolution that protects the validity of tribal-state compacts," stated Stockbridge-Munsee president Shannon Holsey.
The Stockbridge-Munsee and Menominee tribes say allowing the expansion of the secondary casino in Shawano County goes against the past criteria for growth in gambling that was established by the Republican governor and used to block a casino the Menominee sought in Kenosha.
The Ho-Chunk and the Walker administration, meanwhile, argue that the state doesn't have the authority to intervene in this case because, they say, the Ho-Chunk are staying within the letter of a 2003 compact with the state.
Stockbridge-Munsee president Shannon Holsey and general counsel Dennis Puzz said they don't believe the Walker administration fully grasps the potential for the expansion at Wittenberg to lead to more expansions by the Ho-Chunk and at least two other tribes at casinos that are currently not major sites.
"We find it hard to believe that Gov. Walker would endorse such a broad reinterpretation of state compact language given the profound consequences for future gaming expansions in Wisconsin," Holsey said.
"All we are seeking is a fair resolution that protects the validity of tribal-state compacts"
The conflict is playing out in the wake of a January 2015 decision in which Walker rejected the Menominee's bid to open a casino in Kenosha, in part because of the Ho-Chunk Nation's objection to the plan and the governor's own requirement that all tribes agree to expansions of gambling in the state. Now the Ho-Chunk are expanding their network of successful casinos by building out a facility that both the Menominee and Stockbridge-Munsee are saying is out of bounds and will hurt their less lucrative casinos.
Administration spokesman Steve Michels said the two situations were "completely different," since in 2003 Democratic Gov. Jim Doyle's administration authorized a casino at Wittenberg. It opened in 2008.
"The question in the Kenosha casino proposal was whether private land would be taken into trust by the United States for the Menominee so a tribal casino could be constructed on that land. In such a case, the governor has broad authority to approve or deny taking the private land into trust," Michels said. "In this case... the question is whether the Ho-Chunk Nation’s expansion on the parcel violates the provisions of the Ho-Chunk Nation’s compact. It does not."
The Ho-Chunk broke ground a month ago on the $33 million expansion, which is adding an 86-room hotel, hundreds of new slot machines, table games and a full restaurant, tribal spokesman Collin Price said.
The dispute lies in whether the Ho-Chunk's expansion fits within the tribe's previous agreement with the state about secondary casinos, often called "ancillary facilities"
Price said the Ho-Chunk are complying with both federal Indian gambling laws and with the tribe's state agreement, leaving the state no room to object, he said.
"We're definitely within the compact," Price said.
But the outcome doesn't sit well with the legislators representing the area, Sen. Rob Cowles (R-Allouez) and Rep. Gary Tauchen (R-Bonduel). They wrote Administration Secretary Scott Neitzel on Sept. 20 to ask him to ensure the compact is followed at the Wittenberg casino.
"This seems very unfair to me," Cowles said in an interview. "(The Stockbridge-Munsee are) a small tribe and the Ho-Chunk are already quite well-to-do. Are they going to be sharing with their poorer brethren? No."
Walker spokesman Tom Evenson said the governor hadn't dropped his requirement that all tribes agree to gambling expansions but said it could only be applied to new, off-reservation casinos.
"The Menominee were required to obtain Governor Walker’s approval as he had the authority over their off-reservation casino proposal. This matter is not an off-reservation casino proposal," Evenson said
The Stockbridge-Munsee and Menominee have raised several questions about the Wittenberg expansion in letters to the state, including whether the casino was appropriate to place on the land in question in the first place. But the main question hinges on a 2003 Ho-Chunk compact amendment with the state that allows the tribe to have a secondary casino in Shawano County and four other sites in addition to its four main gambling facilities in locations like the Wisconsin Dells and Madison.
The amendment approved by the Doyle administration says the ancillary casino like Wittenberg should have half or more of their "lot coverage" used for a "primary business purpose other than gaming."
Holsey and Puzz of the Stockbridge-Munsee say that the enlarged casino will clearly put the Ho-Chunk out of compliance because it will dwarf an existing convenience store on the property. They say the state should remember that the Ho-Chunk, Oneida and St. Croix tribes have a total of nine other secondary casinos that were authorized subject to similar restrictions. Those could also be expanded if the state lets the Wittenberg expansion move forward, they said.
"Failure to act does a disservice to tribes in the state that operate gaming facilities in conformance with federal law and their compacts with the state," Menominee Tribe chairwoman Joan Delabreau wrote in a Sept. 20 letter to state Administration Secretary Scott Neitzel.
But Price said that more than half of the Ho-Chunk land at Wittenberg is used for non-gambling purposes, keeping the tribe in compliance with the compact. Other tribes still have to abide by their separate compacts, he said.
"I don't think it's a slippery slope," he said.