BOSTON -- The Gaming Commission is planning to revisit the input it got earlier this year on the idea of relaunching the process to license a third resort casino in Massachusetts and regulators might be under pressure to share their thinking with the Legislature by early this fall.

The state's 2011 expanded gaming law gave the Gaming Commission the power to grant up to three resort casino licenses. So far, only two have been awarded -- to MGM Springfield and Encore Boston Harbor in Everett.

Region C -- the commission's name for Bristol, Plymouth, Barnstable, Dukes and Nantucket counties -- has been an unsettled matter for the commission for years. In 2016, when it appeared a Mashpee Wampanoag tribal casino in Taunton was likely, the commission rejected a proposal for a commercial casino in Brockton. Since then, the tribe's plan has been thrown into doubt, and regulators have discussed reopening the bidding for Region C, but have not been in any rush to take that step.

This week, the House adopted an economic development bill that included language requiring that the Gaming Commission report to the Legislature by Oct. 1 on the status of Region C. If the language is retained in the final bill, the commission's report would have to provide legislators with "an evaluation of economic conditions within region C and surrounding areas with respect to the region's ability to sustain a category 1 gaming establishment ... an evaluation of the likelihood of an applicant for a category 1 license to be able to offer convincing evidence that it could provide value to region C ... [and] the probability of the submission of an application for a category 1 license in region C prior to January 1, 2024."

Rep. Carol Doherty, a Taunton Democrat who co-sponsored the language, said a report from the Gaming Commission is necessary to determine whether a Region C casino would be a good bet given the gaming landscape and the lingering questions about a $1 billion Mashpee Wampanoag casino planned in her city.

"There is speculation that a casino in this region is not viable due to oversaturation of the market because the region is located in close proximity to Rhode Island, which has its own casinos, and because of the newly-opened Encore casino. The uncertainty around the status of the tribal casino in Taunton adds to the complexity of a Region C license as well," Doherty said in a statement to the News Service.

She then suggested that the Legislature, and not the Gaming Commission, could be the body that ultimately will consider whether to grant a third resort casino license.

"The language in the consolidated amendment will allow us to take a close look at gambling in the Southeast and to receive a report that has with all the relevant information we will need before proceeding with the idea of granting a license for Region C," she said.

Asked about the possibility of the Legislature assuming that power from the Gaming Commission, Doherty said in an email, "The report comes back to the legislature but is not explicit about who grants the license. I imagine It will depend on the findings of the report. As it stands now the GC has the authority to grant the license. If the report findings suggest something other then that we would follow the recommendations of the report."

For the Gaming Commission's part, a spokeswoman said Tuesday that regulators plan to get back into reviewing the feedback from a formal request for information the commission issued in January looking for answers to specific and business-related questions related to a potential market analysis of Region C.

"To help inform the MGC's perspective on the potential value and timing of a study, we issued an RFI earlier this year. Responses were received in mid-March just as the state began to confront COVID-19. It is our intention to revisit those submissions now that the reopening has occurred," Sarah Magazine, the commission's interim director of communications, told the News Service.

The Mashpee Wampanoag tribe's land in trust status has been under contention for years. The tribe was federally-recognized in 2007 and the Obama administration took the land into trust for the tribe in early 2016. But the Trump administration has worked to undo that designation at the same time that the tribe has worked to build a $1 billion casino on its land in Taunton.

The fate of the tribe's land in trust could have a significant impact on the state's commercial casino industry. One concern, as expressed by local officials and others, is that commercial casino operators might not be willing to invest the minimum $500 million in a project that could have to compete with a nearby tribal casino.

Plus, if the Gaming Commission opts to go ahead with licensing a commercial casino in Region C and the tribe is allowed to open its own casino under federal law, Massachusetts would receive no tax revenue from the tribal casino.

In March, Interior Secretary David Bernhardt ordered the tribe's land be taken out of trust status, putting the sovereignty of the tribe's 321 acres of reservation land in Mashpee and Taunton in question.

But in June, a federal judge ruled in favor of the Mashpee Wampanoag in a case in which the tribe argued that the interior secretary failed to properly consider extensive factual evidence it submitted to make the case that it should be eligible for land in trust. The judge remanded the matter to the Department of the Interior for the agency to reconsider.

-State House News Service

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