The fate of online gambling in Las Vegas could be resolved within a matter of weeks.

Backed by Wall Street, Nevada’s gaming industry, and a group of politicians led by Assemblywoman Merle Berman (R-Las Vegas), testimony began March 30 for Nevada’s casinos to get online and could vote next week to determine if the desert has a new home on the Internet.

Berman sponsored Assembly Bill 296, which would clear the path for legalized Internet gambling in Nevada, the world capitol of land-based gambling and entertainment. The bill would give state regulators the power to approve interactive gaming licenses.

Bill 296 would permit regulators to award a license should all applicable laws be met and the operator proves that the system is secure and reliable. The financial reasons for approving the online shift are obvious, with an estimated $56 million in taxable revenue forecast to be generated in 2001-02 and $111 million in 2002-03.

There were questions regarding the legality of such a decision by the Nevada Legislature from those who argue that online gambling is illegal in the United States under the federal Wire Act of 1961. But because gambling is already legal in Nevada, casinos based in the state could lawfully do business with any customer who does not reside in a U.S. state, or country, where gambling online is illegal.

There are concerns amongst gambling industry supporters that as the online industry grows, it will become increasingly more difficult for the land-based operators to get a foothold in the burgeoning industry. There is also a push by native American tribes in California to beat Vegas to the punch and set up shop online.

Berman said that her drive to legalize Nevada-based Internet gambling operations did not come at the request of Las Vegas operators, and in fact, she has initiated meetings with several undisclosed casino operators, but not yet those from Park Place, Harrah’s or MGM Mirage.

The urgency of the race to legalize online gambling in Nevada and New Jersey, is based upon the idea that, much like the retail industry, casinos are more likely to establish loyalty amongst players if they beat the other operators to the punch and get their sites legalized first.

In the booming online gambling industry, owners are anxiously waiting to receive the go-ahead and get their take of the millions of dollars Internet gambling produces each year.

Although they do not currently host online gambling, many Las Vegas casinos’ websites have the structure in order to make a seamless transition to full Internet gambling when and if it is legalized. Harrah’s and the Mirage have agreements with Silicon Gaming and iwin.com to co-develop games-for-prizes websites. Park Place, meanwhile, holds a 20 per cent share in Australia’s Jupiters, which owns centrebet.com, on online gambling site.

Any legislation must pass the house in which it originated by April 16.