01/31/2003 12:00AM

Don't look back - others are gaining

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Gambling in other states is gaining big momentum - and encroaching on what has been Nevada's turf - as local governments look for new revenue streams to balance budget deficits.

Less than three months after the national elections no fewer than 15 states are moving full steam ahead to either introduce gambling laws and regulations or expand, liberalize, or change existing laws.

In addition to trying to reduce growing budget crunches, many local legislators are moving to discourage local residents from crossing state lines to gamble and leave their money in other states.

The 12 states most likely to consider gambling legislation this year have a combined population of 117.3 million. They include Iowa, Kansas, Kentucky, Maine, Maryland, Missouri, Nebraska, Ohio, and Rhode Island.

But it's Florida, New York, Pennsylvania, and California that are the major concern of the Nevada casino industry.

New York has passed a bill that would allow slots at parimutuel tracks in the state. Florida and Pennsylvania have introduced similar measures, while Native Americans continue to push for a cut of the gambling pie.

The California parimutuel industry is also lobbying for slots at tracks, but it's the state's Indian gambling industry that is ready to explode.

Governor Gray Davis is tapping Indian tribes for $1.5 billion to help the state's growing $34.6 billion shortfall. This while they renegotiate a compact that could allow each tribe in the state two casinos with 2,000 slot machines apiece.

Nevada's gaming companies are positioning themselves to be part of the growth.

Station Casinos Inc., a local casino giant in Las Vegas, has joined with the United Auburn Indian Community in northern California to build and manage a $215 million casino near Sacramento.

Expected to open in June, the Thunder Valley Casino is projected to generate $104 million in net income through the end of the year. Station owns 100 acres adjacent to the site and has an option to buy another 150 acres included in its seven-year deal. Company officials believe it can grow to be one of the biggest and most complete gaming complexes in the country.

Even the offshore Internet casinos are going after what used to be a Nevada exclusive.

The Super Bowl has long been the biggest single-day sports betting event in Las Vegas. And with it came full-pocketed visitors playing more than just football.

Although Nevada sports books took in a healthy $71.7 million in wagers on the big game this year, that total was $5 million short of the Super Bowl wagering record of $77.3 million in 1998.

There are now more markets in which to gamble, and as a result Las Vegas has not enjoyed much recent growth in number of visitors. Most industry observers believe that the future of Las Vegas will depend on providing entertainment and leisure activities - including shopping and a wide variety of restaurants - to complement the gambling.

- Ralph Siraco is turf editor for the Las Vegas Sun and host of the Race Day Las Vegas radio show.