Montana State University is hoping that when the 2013 Legislature convenes right after Christmas, lawmakers will be feeling more like Santa Clauses than Scrooges.

President Waded Cruzado laid out Monday five big-ticket items on MSU’s wish list for the upcoming session, items that would cost millions of dollars.

“These proposals aim to meet critical workforce needs for our state in health care and agriculture,” Cruzado wrote in her weekly community letter, “and also provide needed renovations and improvements to classroom and student services space on our campuses.”

The list includes expanding the doctor-training WWAMI program by 10 students, which would cost $1.5 million a year at full enrollment; creating a similar training program for 10 veterinarian students a year, at an eventual cost of $1.4 million; and major building projects at MSU campuses in Great Falls, Billings, Havre and Bozeman, costing a total of $44 million.

MSU’s single biggest proposal seeks $20 million to renovate Romney Gymnasium, a 1922 brick building with a distinctive vaulted roof. The center of MSU athletics until 1958, its leaky swimming pool has been closed for several years, and the gym that was the 1927 Golden Bobcats’ home court is now used by a swing dance club. Romney houses offices and labs for the department of health and human development.

The regents have endorsed MSU’s plan to transform Romney, with its prime location in the heart of campus, into a center of student services and activities.

“It is underutilized,” said Tracy Ellig, MSU news director, who will be the university’s lobbyist in Helena. Preliminary ideas are to make Romney a place where students can find tutoring, computer labs and other services now spread across campus.

Romney Gym is No. 4 on the regents’ priority list for major building projects. No. 1 is the University of Montana’s request for $47 million to expand its crowded two-year Missoula College, followed by MSU Billings’ request for $15 million to renovate and expand its outdated Health and Science classroom building, and MSU-Northern’s $7.9 million request to replace its obsolete Auto and Diesel Technology Building.

MSU will try again to expand the WWAMI doctor-training program, an idea lawmakers rejected in the past. Montana WWAMI students take their first year of medical school at the Bozeman campus and then study at the University of Washington. While other states have expanded the number of student slots they subsidize, Montana hasn’t added any since 1975.

“We have a shortage of physicians in Montana,” Ellig said, “and the WWAMI program is structured to put emphasis on inspiring students to be primary-care physicians and to practice in rural areas.”

Of Montana’s 56 counties, 53 have a shortage of primary-care doctors, he said. Nine counties have no doctors. The rate of WWAMI students returning to work in Montana is 55 percent, higher than the national average of 39 percent returning to home states.

In 2008 Montana started the TRUST (Targeted Rural Under-Served Track) program, to encourage more medical students to practice in rural areas by getting them to work alongside rural doctor-mentors even before med school starts.

Ellig said in the past some lawmakers criticized the idea of the state subsidizing roughly half the cost of training doctors, who will earn more than $100,000 a year.

“While they may earn high wages compared to Montanans, they’re not going to have high wages compared to other physicians, particularly if they choose to be primary care physicians,” Ellig said. Specialist doctors in big cities can earn hundreds of thousands of dollars more. “If we just let market forces play out, there will be no incentive to come to Montana.”

Ellig said he’s optimistic that MSU’s doctor-training proposal will fare better in the 2013 Legislature. “We see it as benefitting the whole state.”

Cruzado has proposed a similar veterinarian training program, in which 10 Montana students would study their first year in Bozeman, then train at Washington State University, while working with rural Montana vets. Livestock is crucial to Montana’s economy, yet the state is short by 278 veterinarians, according to MSU. Under the current vet program, nine Montana students are chosen each year to train in Colorado or other states, but once picked they have no relationship with MSU.

Gail Schontzler can be reached at gails@dailychronicle.com or 582-2633.

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