The state gambling commission voted unanimously Thursday to allow commercial developers to move forward with proposals for a casino in Southeastern Massachusetts, providing a potential fallback in case the Mashpee Wampanoag Tribe is not able to clear all the legal hurdles it faces to build a tribal casino.
The commission decided to begin soliciting bids from gambling companies interested in vying for casino development rights in the region, even though the tribe continues to insist it has made significant progress toward building a casino in Taunton.
In a statement, the tribal chairman said the decision to allow both the tribe and commercial developers to proceed with their own proposals, potentially allowing two casinos to be built in the area, could jeopardize all casino proposals across the state.
“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 backwards,’’ said Cedric Cromwell, chairman of the Mashpee Wampanoag Tribe. He also pointed out that the tribe has suffered a “long succession of broken promises by the government” over the past 400 years.
When the state law was passed in 2011, state lawmakers originally decided to freeze commercial development in Southeastern Massachusetts to give the the Mashpee Wampanoag tribe the first crack at building a casino in that region.
But the tribe still faces a number of difficult legal hurdles to winning federal approval for a site.
The tribe already controls land in Taunton at the junction of Routes 24 and 140. But the federal government has yet to classify that as tribal land exempt from state gambling regulations.
The Mashpee Wampanoag have asked the US Department of the Interior to take the property into trust on the tribe’s behalf, which would make the land eligible to host tribal gambling. But a 2009 US Supreme Court ruling cast doubt on the federal government’s ability to legally take land into trust for many tribes, such as Mashpee Wampanoag.
That means that even if the federal government did act, the decision could be held up by court challenges
In the meantime, commission chairman Stephen Crosby recently said that “the commission would be shirking its fundamental responsibilities if it failed to look at alternatives.”
Despite the decision, the tribe can still go forward with its own proposal. There is no guarantee the commission will award any commercial licenses. The commission is considered unlikely to approve a commercial casino license under state rules if it believes the tribe is about to win federal approval for a casino of its own.
The commission plans to make a decision on whether to award a commercial license after “taking into consideration everything going on in the region, including the status of the tribe,” when the application period ends in late 2014, Crosby said. But a commercial casino could face legal questions of its own. The Mashpee Wampanoag have questioned the commission’s legal authority to solicit commercial applications for a casino in the southeast region and could potentially challenge the decision in court.