03/17/2006 1:00AM

Lawmakers, are you listening?


Spring is here. At least on the calendar of Las Vegas race and sports books.

The rite of spring in the books is the unbridled action of the NCAA men's basketball tournament. Along with possibly the Kentucky Derby and Super Bowl, this is one of the few events that local sports books could actually charge admission for a seat.

But they don't. Instead, the only price that matters is point spreads on those games. And, that is where the NCAA and many politicians believe the price is too high.

Every year the action on the 48 games over the first of three tournament weekends should be enough to convince even the most straight-laced legislator that most constituents want a little more than a rooting interest.

According to the Nevada Gaming Control Board, an estimated $80 million to $85 million on the NCAA Tournament was wagered in the Silver State last year. As the only legal U.S. outlet for college sports wagering, Nevada - and specifically Las Vegas - becomes a popular spring-break getaway when the 64-team playoff begins. The mass hysteria that sweeps across packed sports books and special viewing areas here is only a fragment of the wave of humanity across America that participates by betting a sawbuck or two.

Those who can't make it to the desert have taken their desire to place a bet on the games off-shore. The off-shore betting boom is projected to handle more than $1.3 billion on the tournament.

A recent column in the Las Vegas Review-Journal reported a survey conducted by the placement firm of Challenger, Gray, and Christmas that indicates Americans will spend an average of 13.5 minutes of workplace time checking out the tournament on Internet sites. CBS has gone as far as to provide streaming video of the games on its companion website with a feature called the "boss button." Push the button when you boss walks by and a spread sheet flashes over the computer screen making you look like a dedicated worker. The 13.5 Internet minutes translates to $237 million in lost wages and a total cost to employers of $3.8 billion over the 16 business days the tournament covers.

There are also millions of office pools circulating far from the bright lights of the Las Vegas Strip.

Intimidated by the audacity of Nevada sports books in the practice of good old American supply-and-demand commerce, the NCAA has taken a page from the book of another pristine institution, the National Football League. Like the phrase "Super Bowl," sports books have gotten their warning about using, of all things, "March Madness" as part of the description of what is happening in the books themselves.

Of course, there is that other rite of spring which surfaces with the cherry blossoms at this time of year in D.C. - another attempt to legislate the unlawful practice of Americans choosing to place a wager over the same Internet on which CBS will have billions of hits on the NCAA tournament before the finals are played.

Clearly, billions of people favor the right to legally place a wager conveniently. The people have spoken. Viva Las Vegas.

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