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Lawmakers won’t release gaming funds over disputes tied to tribal sovereignty

The committee's co-chairs say $2M was withheld due to ongoing disputes over roads and taxation of tribal residents

Gov. Tony Evers stands in front of the assembly and gives a speech.
Gov. Tony Evers delivers the biennial budget message Wednesday, Feb. 15, 2023, at the Wisconsin State Capitol in Madison, Wis. Angela Major/WPR

The Legislature’s Republican-controlled finance committee confirmed it is withholding tribal gaming revenues from two Lake Superior tribes over disputes tied to tribal sovereignty.

In September, the Department of Administration requested the GOP-controlled Joint Committee on Finance transfer $11 million in tribal gaming revenues that would be awarded as grants to Wisconsin’s 11 tribes.

On Oct. 31, the committee rejected the agency’s request. Instead, the committee voted 8-4 along party lines to award $1 million each in tribal gaming revenues to nine of the state’s 11 tribes with the exception of the Bad River and Lac du Flambeau Bands of Lake Superior Chippewa. All Republicans voted in favor of the motion without providing a reason why the two tribes were excluded during the meeting.

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On Monday, the committee’s GOP co-chairs Sen. Howard Marklein and Rep. Mark Born said in a statement that the committee withheld the funds because they say the two tribes have “taken adverse actions against their fellow Wisconsinites.”

“While we respect their autonomy as a tribe, we must also respect the taxpayers who are suffering as a result of the tribes’ decisions. They have prevented access to private properties, levied unreasonable fees on local municipalities, and are causing skyrocketing property taxes all due to their actions,” the co-chairs said.

The two lawmakers made the comments after Democratic Gov. Tony Evers urged the committee on Monday to release the $2 million that was withheld. The Lac du Flambeau and Bad River tribes have said the committee discriminated against them by excluding them from the grant awards.

“My request to Republicans is simple: stop playing politics with the Native Nations in this state and release these funds that are essential for Tribes to provide governmental services to their citizens and communities,” Evers said in a news release.

Leaders of the two tribes either declined or didn’t immediately return requests for comment. Lac du Flambeau Tribal President John Johnson Sr. has said he suspected lawmakers withheld the funds due to ongoing disputes.

“But in these cases, like we’re having now with our treaty rights and protecting our lands, I’m not wrong,” Johnson previously told WPR. “I should never have to apologize for something like that, that I’m trying to keep intact for future generations of our grandchildren.”

Lawmakers point to ongoing disputes on reservation lands

Lawmakers are targeting the two tribes related to ongoing disputes over access to roads and a federal court ruling that required removing tribal properties from the tax rolls.

On the Lac du Flambeau reservation, the tribe barricaded four roads from Jan. 31 through March 13 after negotiations with the town and title companies over long-expired easements broke down.

The agreements allowed nontribal residents to use roads on reservation lands to access their homes. Since then, the town has been making monthly payments to the tribe for temporary access. Multiple lawsuits have been filed in the dispute by landowners, the town and the federal government.

Meanwhile, the Bad River tribe has been at odds with nontribal residents on its reservation after a federal appeals court ruled the state could no longer tax tribal properties on reservation lands. The decision stems from a federal lawsuit brought by four tribes in 2018, including the Bad River tribe.

While the ruling affected multiple communities, the effects of the decision have been felt more acutely by residents in the town of Sanborn that lies entirely within the Bad River reservation. The town had to remove tribal residents from its tax rolls, which caused taxes to skyrocket for Sanborn’s remaining residents.

This summer, the town agreed to freeze its tax levy for the next three to five years in order to obtain a state loan that helped ease some financial challenges stemming from the ruling. Tax bills for Sanborn residents are expected to be lower than last year when they more than doubled for nontribal residents, but bills remain higher than they were prior to the federal court decision.

Bad River tribal member Sandy Deragon, who is a Sanborn resident, said lawmakers are punishing the tribes for the state’s illegal actions.

“They illegally collected taxes from our tribal people, the landowners here,” Deragon said. “They did it for so many years, and got away with it. Now, we’re being punished for that.”

In their joint statement, Born and Marklein noted Evers signed off on the committee’s decision on Nov. 10. They said he could have vetoed the meeting’s minutes.

“We don’t understand why he has suddenly changed course,” the co-chairs wrote.

An Evers spokesperson said the GOP-controlled committee would have voted to override any veto, which would have only resulted in further delays to release the funds.

“This skips that unnecessary step and presses the committee to approve the funds expeditiously, as our administration already requested. Further, objecting to the minutes would’ve jeopardized funds for the Tribes who did rightfully receive the funds,” Evers spokesperson Britt Cudaback said in an email.

Cudaback said the governor’s priority is quickly appropriating funds rather than waiting for Republicans to obstruct the process.

“It’s called governing,” she said.