MADISON, Wis. (AP) — A tiny airport in central Wisconsin that's seen an influx of private jets since a Republican donor's world-class golf course opened nearby would get $4 million in improvements under funding slipped into the state budget this week.
The Republican-controlled Joint Finance Committee approved the funding after the developer of the Sand Valley Golf Resort, Mike Keiser, donated $25,000 to the state Republican Party in February, records reviewed by The Associated Press show.
That donation was three weeks after Gov. Scott Walker released his budget without funding for Wisconsin Rapids' Alexander Field. Keiser has given at least $65,000 to Walker and Wisconsin Republicans since 2012.
"It sure looks like Mr. Keiser's campaign contributions to Scott Walker and Republicans teed up millions in taxpayer-funded improvements to help bring corporate jet ferried golfers to his Wisconsin courses," said Mike Browne with the liberal advocacy group One Wisconsin Now. "Meanwhile the rest of us will continue to have to deal with crumbling roads and bridges and delayed projects as these same Republicans take a budget mulligan and refuse to fix the state transportation funding crisis."
Keiser's son, Michael Keiser, manages the resort and returned a message left for his father. He denied that any donation was meant to force inclusion of the funding.
"We're never going to make a political contribution to affect any decision," the younger Keiser said. Donations from his father, which in Wisconsin date back to at least 1991 based on records maintained by the Wisconsin Democracy Campaign, are targeted to candidates he believes in, Michael Keiser said.
Republican state Rep. Scott Krug, who is not on the budget committee but whose legislative district includes the golf course, said the donations don't have anything to do with the airport project getting funded.
Krug said Keiser's donations were to support Republicans who were doing good things for the Wisconsin economy, not to win approval of the airport funding. The planned upgrades there are long overdue for all planes that use it, he said.
"This isn't just a Michael Keiser airport," Krug said. "This isn't just a Sand Valley airport."
The state Department of Transportation had planned to pay for the airport upgrades in 2021, but it would be moved up to this year to meet the demand caused by the added air traffic due to the golf course, Krug said.
"It would be rare to see a private jet before the Sand Valley course opened," he said. "Now you have six to eight private jets sitting out there on any given day."
Airport manager Jeremy Sickler did not immediately return a message Friday to discuss the increase in traffic since the golf course opened.
Keiser's son said he didn't have any data on the increase in flights since the first of four planned golf courses opened this year. He said getting the money to improve the airport was important to deal with the growth.
"It's important for us because we want it to be as easy as possible for our guests to get here," he said.
Krug said he spoke with Walker about funding the work before he released the budget and he doesn't know why it wasn't included. Walker's spokesman Tom Evenson said the governor would not comment on what his plans were for the budget.
The airport is just a 20-minute drive from the resort created by Keiser. He made his fortune in the greeting-card business but is known for creating the Bandon Dunes golf mecca along the Oregon coast and also built courses in Michigan, Canada and Australia.
Keiser bought the property between Wisconsin Rapids and Adams-Friendship that would ultimately become the Sand Valley Golf Resort in 2013. The resort was designed by two-time Masters winner Ben Crenshaw and Bill Coore and has garnered national attention since it opened in April.
But Wisconsin Rapids officials said the city-owned airport can't accommodate the corporate and private jets bringing golfers to the new resort. They identified nearly $7 million in needed improvements, including additional taxiways, larger aprons, plane parking areas and more fuel storage.
In September, Keiser donated $1,000 — the maximum allowed under state law — to Krug, who represents Wisconsin Rapids. On Oct. 31, just a week before the fall election, Keiser gave $5,000 to the Wisconsin Republican Party. Two weeks later he followed that with $2,700 to Walker's federal campaign account, created for his presidential run.
Then on Feb. 27, after Walker's budget was released without the airport funding, Keiser gave his biggest donation ever to the state GOP: $25,000.