AUGUSTA, Maine — Lawmakers said the expansion of online gambling allowed by a recent U.S. Department of Justice ruling will spread quickly to Maine and urged the establishment of regulations just as quickly to address that inevitability.

Members of the Legislature’s Veterans and Legal Affairs Committee on Wednesday heard from three of its members who attended a recent gambling conference in Las Vegas. All three said online gambling, including online poker and Internet sale of lottery tickets, is poised to explode and Maine needs to be ready.

“This is a very sophisticated business that we need to catch up on; that was a stark reality,” said Sen. Debra Plowman, R-Hampden.

Added Rep. Linda Valentino, D-Saco: “After eight years, there is so much that we don’t know.”

So how can lawmakers take what they heard at this national conference and turn it into policy?

A carryover bill, LD 227, sponsored by Valentino, sought to adopt a comprehensive state policy that regulates the construction and operation of casinos in Maine. Members of the Veterans and Legal Affairs Committee can use that bill as a framework and amend it or rewrite it as needed to cover online gaming.

On Wednesday, members decided to create a small subcommittee to research and determine whether Maine should pass one comprehensive bill on gambling regulations or consider several individual bills.

That subcommittee will report back to the full committee, which will then decide how to proceed.

Asked whether a bill could get passed during this session, Valentino said: “We can’t not do something because we don’t have enough time. It’s our duty.”

Since casino proposals first cropped up in Maine, the Legislature has been mostly reactive in terms of policy. All measures have gone out to a statewide vote, but among about a dozen initiatives in the last decade and a half, only two have passed.

Hollywood Slots in Bangor has been in operation since 2005. A casino in Oxford County was approved in 2010 and is under construction.

During the November 2011 election, voters rejected two proposals that would have drastically expanded gambling in Maine.

Plowman and Valentino both said now might be a good time for the state to be proactive on gambling regulations since there is no casino proposal on the horizon.

Last month, the U.S. Justice Department reversed its interpretation of the 1961 Wire Act that banned online gambling and said state lotteries are not prohibited from offering online wagering within their state.

Plowman said the Justice Department’s decision still allows states to impose their own regulations but in the absence of any regulations, things could move quickly.

Rep. Doug Damon, R-Bangor, said the popularity of online poker has grown exponentially.

“If we don’t have some oversight, it’s our citizens who are participating. Do they need some protection? Possibly so,” he said.

Both Hollywood Slots and the Oxford County casino could be affected by an increase in legal online gambling.

“This will need to be addressed by the committee. It’s going to be a race for states to see how they deal with this,” Valentino said.