12/03/2004 12:00AM

Trust me, Vegas can't be trumped


Las Vegas boggles the mind.

We are in the final month of the year, the National Finals Rodeo is occupying the city, and there are already reports of very few rooms left at the inn for New Year's Eve. This despite double the hotel-room inventory and higher room rates from a decade ago. In the midst of the highest visitor volume at McCarron Airport, there seems to be no end in sight.

Plans for building multibillion-dollar mega-resorts are announced as often as Britney Spears changes partners. Guys such as Donald Trump wait in line to add their name to the high-rise frenzy reshaping the skyline, while Steve Wynn is on the brink of opening another signature resort that is certain to raise the bar again.

This on the threshold of a yearlong Centennial celebration of a town whose most constant attribute is reinventing itself.

When Atlantic City casinos opened nearly three decades ago, many said it would be the end of Las Vegas as we know it. They were right - it got bigger.

When gaming started its proliferation throughout the United States on riverboats and at the shore of the Gulf, many said it would slow down Las Vegas. Now the only slowdown is the bumper-to-bumper traffic on I-15 flowing in from California.

When Indian gaming spread to virtually every piece of land owned by Native Americans across the country, many said those who flocked to Las Vegas would gamble closer to home. Well, Las Vegas has become home to more than double the population of the last decade, adding residents at an average clip of 5,000 per month.

When the Internet casinos multiplied faster than those pop-up ads, many said they would siphon off billions of dollars from the desert neon. They have. But, there is still plenty left to keep the gaming profits, and gaming stocks, climbing.

Off shore, on shore, sovereign nations, computers, phone betting, and neighborhood gaming expansion has done nothing more than feed the appetite for the Las Vegas experience to mainstream America.

Las Vegas has met the changing borders of gaming and has prospered in the face of that change.

So, it came as no surprise when, again, many sounded a warning after a recent change of heart led some lawmakers in New Jersey to propose legalized sports betting in the Garden State.

The sports betting idea in New Jersey is fueled by the same reasons that drove other jurisdictions to accept gaming: widening budget deficits, promises of funding programs for those in need, and job creation.

Federal law, however, bans sports betting in all but four states: Nevada, Oregon, Delaware, and Montana. Outside of full-blown sports books operating year-round in Nevada, only Oregon runs a state-sponsored pro football pool during its season.

New Jersey Assembly Speaker Albio Sires (D-Hudson) now says he backs a sports betting bill that could raise $92.5 million in taxes, and hearings on such a bill are being held. Acting Gov. Richard J. Codey hasn't taken a position on the measure, and voters would have to approve a sports betting referendum to make it a reality. Supporters believe they can overturn the federal Professional and Amateur Sports Protection Act, and they are urging the New Jersey attorney general to explore such action.

So, while New Jersey entertains the possibility of offering another product that has been exclusive to Nevada - to the tune of $2 billion in action last year - if history has taught us anything, we can only believe that it will not end sports betting as we know it in Las Vegas. Hey, maybe it will lead an NFL team to a home in Las Vegas.

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