LAS VEGAS – Gamblers who prefer their laptops to blackjack tables could soon get a boost from Washington.
Republican New York Congressman Peter King proposed federal regulations Thursday that would rescue online gambling from the legal gray zone where it currently languishes.
The federal government cracked down on online poker in 2011. But the same year, the U.S. Justice Department issued a ruling making online gambling legal so long as it's permitted on the state level.
Congress flirted with an online gambling bill last year, but industry infighting and partisan disagreement ultimately doomed it. When that legislation failed, states began moving ahead on their own.
Nevada, New Jersey and Delaware have legalized some kind of online gambling, and legislatures in other states are weighing the issue.
Morgan Stanley predicts that by 2020, online gambling in the U.S. will produce the same amount of revenue as Las Vegas and Atlantic City markets combined: $9.3 billion.
But a larger, more fluid market is needed to drive up pots and create a robust stream of tax revenue.
King says his measure, called the Internet Gambling Regulation, Consumer Protection and Enforcement Act of 2013, would help states and players to navigate the world of online betting with confidence.
"A common federal standard will ensure strong protections for consumers, protect against problem and underage gambling, and make it easier for businesses, players, lawmakers and regulators to navigate and freely participate," he said in a statement.
The bill would create an office of gambling oversight in the Treasury Department, impose uniform safeguards against underage and compulsive gambling, and facilitate interstate online wagering. Individual states could continue to ban the practice, or refuse to collaborate across their borders.
The gambling lobby has been pushing for uniform federal legislation, warning that a patchwork of state laws will make it impossible for the global corporations that run the gambling industry to do business.
Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., and Sen. Jon Kyl, R-Ariz., pursued federal Internet poker regulation last year but ultimately gave up before even introducing the legislation.
"We spent the last four years working very, very hard to get in a position to support such legislation if it was introduced," said American Gaming Association CEO Frank Fahrenkopf. "So we're now left in a situation where Kyl, who was very important in the process, has retired, and you've got a multitude of states starting to pass legislation. So we think the urgency is even more important now."
The lobby, which historically supported an online poker only strategy, is expected to decide whether to change its stance and support the King bill at a meeting next month.
This summer could see a relative flood of online gambling bills.
Texas Republican Rep. Joe Barton plans to introduce online poker legislation by the end of next month, according to his spokesman Sean Brown.
And Reid, who once called the passage of an online poker bill, "the most important issue facing Nevada since Yucca Mountain," continues to work on new legislation with Republican Nevada senator Dean Heller.