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Tribe escalates clash over Ho-Chunk casino in Wittenberg

A proposed $33 million Ho-Chunk casino expansion in Wittenberg opposed by the Stockbridge-Munsee Band of Mohican Indians.

Contributed by Ho-Chunk Nation

A Wisconsin Indian tribe is threatening to withhold a nearly $1 million payment to the state, escalating a dispute over what it describes as an illegal incursion on its casino by another tribe’s expansion of its casino in Shawano County.

The Stockbridge-Munsee Band of Mohican Indians announced Monday that it is prepared to withhold a $923,000 payment from its casino revenues, which it provides under a compact agreement with the state.

At issue is an expansion of the Ho-Chunk Nation casino in Wittenberg, about 17 miles from the Stockbridge-Munsee’s North Star Mohican Casino and Resort in Bowler. Ground was broken on the $33 million expansion last fall.

The Stockbridge-Munsee have charged the expansion violates both federal law and the Ho-Chunk casino compact with the state — and will be economically devastating to the small tribe by siphoning revenue from its lone casino.

The state Department of Administration said last fall that it believes the expansion is legal, after the Stockbridge-Munsee and Menominee tribes asked the department to block it.

Stockbridge-Munsee council president Shannon Holsey said Monday that withholding the state payment is a last resort after the tribe exhausted other avenues to resolve the dispute. Holsey signaled that the next step could be taking the matter to court.

“We hope that Gov. (Scott) Walker will heed our requests for fair compact enforcement so that this matter can be resolved without expensive and protracted litigation,” Holsey said.

Department of Administration spokesman Steve Michels reiterated the department’s contention that the Ho-Chunk are building the Wittenberg expansion lawfully, under the terms of its state compact. All 11 of Wisconsin’s federally recognized Indian tribes have compacts with the state that spell out terms by which they may conduct gambling.

Michels said the state “expects the Stockbridge to adhere to the terms of their compact.”

“Simply put, the Stockbridge is getting the deal it agreed to with the state in 2003. Likewise, the Ho-Chunk is getting the deal it agreed to with the state in 2003 as well,” Michels said.

The expansion will increase the number of slot machines in the Wittenberg casino, add an area with high-limit gaming and 10 table games, and construct an 86-room hotel and 84-seat restaurant and bar.

Such amenities previously were not allowed at so-called “ancillary” Wisconsin Indian casinos, of which the Wittenberg casino is one.

State officials say that changed in 2003 through amendments to state compacts with the tribes.

If the Wittenberg expansion is completed, the Ho-Chunk, who have a casino on Madison’s Southeast Side, would operate half of the state’s 10 largest casinos, according to a study commissioned by the Stockbridge-Munsee.

The study says the Stockbridge-Munsee would be the biggest revenue loser from the expansion, missing out on $22 million, or about 37 percent of the revenue from its Bowler casino. The study projected four other tribes — the Potawatomi, Oneida, Chippewa and Menominee — would lose a combined $14.7 million in casino revenue.

Ho-Chunk Nation spokesman Collin Price said the tribe takes no position regarding the Stockbridge-Munsee withholding its payment to the state.

A fact sheet prepared by the Ho-Chunk, provided to the State Journal, said “it is very clear that the (nation) is following its compact to the letter.” It said the casino expansion will be an economic benefit to Wittenberg and the Wausau area, located just west of the casino.

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Mark Sommerhauser covers state government and politics for the Wisconsin State Journal.