The panel overseeing the state's casino gambling law has delayed a vote to open the licensing process to bids from commercial developers in southeastern Massachusetts.
Commercial developers have previously been excluded under a provision that gave preference to a local Native American tribe.
Tuesday's planned vote would not have guaranteed that commercial developers would be able to compete for a casino license nor would it have jettisoned a proposal by the Mashpee Wampanoag tribe to build a casino in Taunton.
The five-member gambling commission opted instead to postpone the final vote on whether to open up bids to commercial developers for 90 days to give the tribe more time to finalize their proposal.
Massachusetts Gaming Commission chairman Stephen Crosby said he was concerned that the vote could have sent a signal that the state was losing faith in the tribe's ability to finish the casino.
"It could be easily imputed from opening up the commercial process that we're beginning to say that the tribe is inevitably not going to be successful," Crosby said.
The casino law had given first crack in the region to a federally-recognized tribe. Cedric Cromwell, tribal chairman of the Mashpee Wampanoag, said he was pleased that the commission had acknowledged the tribe's progress and "unique federal rights."
"Today the gaming commission also acknowledged the risks and complications of adopting a backup plan," Cromwell said in a written statement.
"They know that Gov. Patrick is working with us to get federal approval of our land in trust application and we are working with him on a revised compact," Cromwell added. "We continue to strongly prefer to work together with the commonwealth to bring a first class destination resort casino to Taunton."
Cromwell also said that the Wampanoag proposal is ahead of any other casino development and they look forward to break ground as soon as possible.
The postponed vote would have allowed so-called Phase 1 casino applications to be submitted by commercial developers even as the tribe continues efforts to overcome a series of obstacles, including the U.S. Interior Department's rejection of a compact the Mashpee negotiated with Patrick.
The Phase I process essentially amounts to a background check by the commission to determine if applicants are financially and ethically qualified to move into the second and more competitive phase of the process, one that will result in the actual awarding of casino licenses.
Following that initial phase - expected to take up to six months - the commission said it would decide whether to move onto Phase 2 in southeastern Massachusetts. By then, the commission hopes there should be a clearer picture of the tribe's prospects for success.
The year-old gambling law allows up to three resort-style casinos in the state, one in each of three geographical regions.
Many southeastern Massachusetts lawmakers have argued that the provision giving the Wampanoags the first shot will keep the region from enjoying the job creation and other economic benefits of casino development as quickly as other regions.
Commercial developers must submit a $400,000 fee along with their preliminary applications, the same as companies seeking to build in other parts of the state.
That would seem risky for companies interested in southeastern Massachusetts, given there's no guarantee they would even be able to compete for a license in the future.
This article was originally published on December 18, 2012.
This program aired on December 18, 2012. The audio for this program is not available.