BOSTON (AP) -- The panel overseeing the state's casino gambling law agreed Tuesday to accept preliminary applications from commercial developers in southeastern Massachusetts, who had previously been excluded under a provision that gave preference to a Native American tribe in the region.

The move, described as an "imperfect" solution by Massachusetts Gaming Commission chair Stephen Crosby, does not guarantee that commercial developers will be able to compete for a casino license in the southeast, nor does it jettison a proposal by the Mashpee Wampanoag tribe to build a casino in Taunton.

The five-member panel agreed to a proposal offered by Commissioner James McHugh, a retired judge, to allow Phase 1 casino applications to be submitted 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 Gov. Deval Patrick.

The commission delayed a formal vote on the plan until next week, allowing for a brief public comment period.

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 on to Phase 2 in southeastern Massachusetts. By then, McHugh said, there should be a clearer picture of the tribe's prospects.

"It strikes me as likely that we will know a lot more than we do now," he said.