State acknowledges Ho-Chunk compact OKs another casino

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Rendering provided This bird's-eye view of the proposed $405 million Ho-Chunk Nation casino resort development in Beloit shows the main campus of the project that saw key steps taken in 2018.

MADISON - A state report authored by the Walker administration during the transition to Gov. Tony Evers acknowledges the Ho-Chunk Nation is entitled to one more casino property, but says a Beloit project may move slower than some have anticipated.

The document, drafted by the Department of Administration's Division of Gaming, was prepared for Evers during his transition after he defeated Walker in the Nov. 6 election. Transition documents are regularly written by state agencies ahead of gubernatorial and secretary-level turnover.

The document states: "The Compact with the Ho-Chunk provides for one more class III casino (as defined by the Indian Regulatory Act) for the Ho-Chunk Nation in Wisconsin. The Ho-Chunk have submitted an application for the transfer of land in Beloit, Wisconsin into trust with the Federal Government as required by the Indian Gaming Regulatory Act)."

But according to the Division of Gaming, the federal move by the Bureau of Indian Affairs (BIA) to publish a draft environmental impact statement (EIS) on Nov. 9 doesn't mean approval is imminent from the Department of the Interior.

"...the Division of Gaming takes this action to mean the Bureau of Indian Affairs and the Department of the Interior are at best, one to two years away from a decision and it wouldn't be much of a reach to say this is four years from approval," reads the document obtained by the Beloit Daily News.

Ho-Chunk officials indicated last year they hope to break ground and start construction on the $400 million complex in 2020, with an opening in 2021, pending federal and final state approval. A final EIS and notice of the 33-acre trust site being placed in federal register would precede any decision by BIA and Evers.

When confirming the document's authenticity, DOA Assistant Deputy Secretary Tia Torhorst said the white paper was a "draft document used by the Walker administration in preparation of the final version provided to the transition team."

Torhorst objected to the Beloit Daily News publishing information contained in the document, writing that state attorneys "consider some sections of the memo in your possession to be confidential as either the attorney client and work product privileged or confidential for competitive or bargaining reasons."

In consultation with a Madison law firm specializing in press freedom issues, the newspaper was advised the privilege claim applies to those working with the document in state government, not to the press.

"How state officials in Madison view the Ho-Chunk Nation's casino proposal is of high news value in Beloit and the surrounding region," Editor Bill Barth said. "The language in this document sheds light on how the outgoing Walker administration characterized the Ho-Chunk proposal for the incoming Evers administration. That's important information for the people of Beloit and the area, and for the Ho-Chunk."

The document also urges Evers and other state officials to rein in comments about the project.

"Any request for comment by the media on the Beloit proposal from the State should be answered with cautious statements about the Federal approval process, the unknowns of the process, etc," the transition document said.

In an interview with the Beloit Daily News last February, Evers said he would green light the project if it comes to his desk with federal approval.

"Yes, the governor has said in the past that he's inclined to support the agreement but he will be carefully reviewing the application and listening to all sides of the issue to ensure fair consideration," Evers' Deputy Communications Director Britt Cudaback told the newspaper last week.

A similar statement was quoted in the document noting the comment "is the right tone because the final, federally-approved application, might be different than what is known today," a reference to the required lesser development options announced in the EIS.

Both the city and tribe have said they are fully committed to the largest development that would include a casino, hotel, water park, conference center and supported retail development component.

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