I have worked extensively with 3D Studio Max in the distant past (I used it for versions 1-3 or so), but the last eight years I've worked with Maya. Of course they're both owned by the same company now. A legitimate copy of Maya runs about $3500, so I'm going to pass on that for now. Blender, the open-source equivalent, looks like it ought to fill my needs. I've been spending time learning how to get around in it.
Blender 2.5 switches to Python 3, with considerable API rework at the same time. This makes a lot of the example code on the net obsolete. Documentation is still a work in progress, so get comfortable with the dir, list, and help commands in Python.
There are a couple of possible ways to export geometry. I'm going to experiment with having the makefile detect when a source Blender file has changed and run Blender at the command line to export it to an intermediate file. The command looks something like this:
blender -b input_file.blend --python my_export_script.py