PALMER, Mass. (AP) -- The state gambling commission voted unanimously Thursday to open the door for commercial developers to apply for casino licenses in southeastern Massachusetts, a region that until now had been reserved for a federally-recognized Indian tribe.
The decision was immediately criticized as "misguided" by the Mashpee Wampanoag tribe, though it does not preclude the tribe from continuing with its effort to open a $500 million resort casino in Taunton.
Members of the five-member commission, which is overseeing the state's 2011 casino gambling law, said it had little choice given the complex set of legal and regulatory hurdles facing the tribe. Prior to the vote, Stephen Crosby, the commission's chair, said the plan to open the bidding was the best solution from among a number of undesirable options.
The law that allows up to three regional resort casino licenses in Massachusetts gave exclusivity to a federally-recognized tribe in the southeast region — but also gave the commission authority to open up the region to commercial bidders if the prospects of a tribal casino appeared slim.
The Mashpee insist they are on course to break ground in Taunton within the next year. But to do so they must gain land-in-trust approval from the federal government for the 146-acre site, a process that some legal analysts say could take years and is clouded by a U.S. Supreme Court decision that limits land taking for tribes that were recognized before 1934. The Mashpee received federal recognition in 2007.
The proposal adopted by the commission would allow commercial companies in southeastern Massachusetts to apply for casino licenses under the same competitive process that is now being used in the two other regions, eastern and western Massachusetts. In the meantime, the Mashpee would be able to continue with its efforts, which fall outside the commission's jurisdiction.
Since the process of selecting a commercial proposal could take until late 2014, Crosby said that would give the tribe time to resolve its legal and regulatory issues and if it does, the commission could then opt not to award a commercial license.
"If we proceed and the tribe succeeds on schedule, there is a substantial likelihood when we get there that we would go with the tribe," said Crosby.
At the same time, said another commissioner, James McHugh, "doing a realistic bit of planning for what happens if the tribe is not successful is a reasonable thing to do."
But Cedric Cromwell, the Mashpee Wampanoag tribal chairman, warned the commission that its decision could lead to four casinos being built in Massachusetts rather than the three envisioned under the state's casino law. The tribe has said that it would continue to pursue its Taunton proposal under a separate federal process even if the commission awards a commercial license.
"At a time when we need to create thousands of jobs in every corner of the state and put people back to work, this is a major step backward," Cromwell said in a statement after the vote at the commission meeting held in Palmer, a western Massachusetts where a different casino has been proposed.
The federal Bureau of Indian Affairs last year rejected a compact negotiated with the state that called for the tribe to return 21.5 percent of its gambling revenue to the state. A revised agreement with Gov. Deval Patrick's administration would lower the state's take, likely to 15 or 17 percent, but it has yet to be voted on by the Legislature.
The tribe, however, would not be required to pay any revenue to the state if another resort casino opens in southeastern Massachusetts.
One private company, KG Urban Enterprises, has expressed interest in building a casino in New Bedford and had even gone to federal court to challenge the portion of the casino law that gave preference to the tribe.
The company said in a statement after Thursday's vote that it appreciated the commission's decision.