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Tribe gets more time to pursue a casino

The state gambling commission has backed off a proposal to open Southeastern Massachusetts to commercial casino developers, punting the issue 90 days to mid-March.

The unanimous decision was a win for the Mashpee Wampanoag, who continue to pursue a tribal ­casino in the southeast, and a blow to commercial casino developers ­eager for the opportunity to compete for a state casino license.

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Commercial casino developers have been shut out of Southeastern Massachusetts since the state legalized casino gambling in November 2011. State law delays commercial bidding in the southeast to give the Mashpee Wampanoag a head start in developing a tribal casino under federal guidelines.

But the tribe continues to face steep legal obstacles to winning federal approval to host gambling, and in recent weeks the commission has discussed the possibility of entertaining commercial bids as the tribe continues to seek approval, with the understanding that if the tribe makes significant progress the commission would not issue a commercial license in the southeast.

The tribe objected and asked for the three-month delay, said Stephen Crosby, commission chairman, who said the panel wants to give the tribe a reasonable chance to pursue its casino plans without commercial competition in the region.

“The challenge being: What is reasonable?” Crosby said.

The difficulty facing the tribe is that tribal gambling can only take place on sovereign ­Indian land, and the Mashpee Wampanoag have none. The tribe has asked the federal government to take land in ­Taunton into trust on behalf of the tribe, which would make the property eligible to host gambling.

But the government’s author­ity to take land into trust is in question, and court cases that could clarify land-in-trust procedures may be years from a final decision. Congress has considered bills to clarify the government’s authority, but has not acted.

While the tribe tries to get eligible land, some lawmakers in the southeast complain that their region is falling behind Greater Boston and Western Massachusetts, where commercial casino companies are busily pursuing development rights.

The gambling commission has the power to license a commercial casino in the southeast if it concludes the tribe will be unable to overcome its legal hurdles.

Crosby said that opening the region to commercial developers could create the impression that the commission had given up on the tribe, complicating the Mashpee Wampanoag’s ongoing negotiations with Governor Deval Patrick over the terms by which a tribal casino would operate in Taunton. Such an agreement, while needed ­before a tribal casino can open, still requires the tribe to get eligible land before it can host gambling.

Cedric Cromwell, chairman of the Mashpee Wampanoag, said he was pleased with the commission’s move to put off any consideration of commercial bidding in the southeast.

“Today the Gaming Commission also acknowledged the risks and complications of adopting a backup plan,” ­Cromwell said in a statement. “However, we still contend that having one is not really necessary, since we are so much further along than any other project in the state.”

Mark Arsenault can be reached at marsenault@globe.com. ­Follow him on Twitter ­@bostonglobemark.
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