We New Worlders are of more mixed minds than ever about Old Worlders, it seems. In the past week, we’ve painted our Facebook photos in French tricolors and proclaimed “Je suis Paris,” even as we’ve talked nervously about rejecting refugees, canceling trips and closing borders.

That backdrop has me wondering how Minnesotans will receive news that a seven-year series of health care, workforce development and energy policy exchanges between leaders in Minnesota and Germany — funded primarily by the German government — has come to an end. A successor series about energy innovation is being contemplated, but the funding it will require has not yet been secured.

No big deal, you shrug? We have plenty of good ideas here, you say? Those trips were just junkets?

“These were not junkets. These were intensive educational days,” attests state Sen. David Senjem, R-Rochester, who participated in four German seminars. “They’ve been extremely important in lifting horizons for legislators.”

DFL state Rep. Melissa Hortman of Brooklyn Park added: “The German-Minnesota policy exchanges have been deeply productive. … My dream is to see more state and local policymakers involved.”

That’s bipartisan endorsement for something that was met with bipartisan skepticism 30 years ago this month when undertaken by then-Gov. Rudy Perpich — foreign travel by Minnesota politicians. Perpich’s 1985 jaunt to inspect an Austrian castle as a possible site for University of Minnesota programs came under heavy fire, both from rival pols and regular folk whose vision of Minnesota’s future did not yet extend much beyond the state’s borders.

Visions have widened since then — or so I like to think. Still, it took the persuasive skills of another Perpich — Connie, the late governor’s sister-in-law — to help sell legislators on the idea that they should spend their own money (the German government did not cover airfare, nor did Minnesota taxpayers) and precious summer days sitting in seminars in Berlin, touring urban redevelopment in Hamburg or inspecting a bioenergy park in North Rhine-Westphalia, to swap ideas with Germans.

In 2009, Connie Perpich was a lobbyist for Planned Parenthood and a board member of the Center for German and European Studies at the University of Minnesota. There, she teamed up with the center’s dynamic director, Sabine Engel. Engel, a native of Hamburg, had an idea for bringing together leaders from Minnesota and Germany to talk about health care policy, where she detected considerable common ground. Engel also had the contacts in Germany to win a grant from the German TransAtlantic Fund, a living legacy of the postwar U.S. Marshall Plan.

What Engel didn’t have were contacts with Minnesota legislators and health industry leaders to sell the idea. That’s where Perpich came in, Engel says. She did much to recruit the first 12 Minnesotans to travel to Berlin under the center’s auspices — four legislators, one state commissioner, and an assortment of industry leaders offering a mix of perspective and partisan bents. They traveled to Germany for intensive learning sessions, then hosted a German delegation that traveled to Minnesota soon thereafter.

That was the pattern through 11 swaps over seven years — five about health care, five about renewable energy and one about workforce development. The delegations grew in size and impact as mentions of “how Germany does it” crept into Capitol discussions and policymaking. Some examples:

• The 2013 Legislature authorized community solar gardens and mandated that Xcel Energy buy the power they generate. Both chief sponsors of that legislation — DFLers John Marty in the Senate and Hortman in the House — had been exchange participants. “I can say for my part that the German policy example and experience led directly to the Minnesota policy,” Hortman said.

• A new earn-while-you-learn higher education program with the acronym PIPELINE came together after Senate higher ed chair Terri Bonoff visited Germany and learned about its “dual education” system. PIPELINE started taking applications last month from employers willing to partner with local colleges and pay students while they receive on-the-job training, while the state pays up to $6,000 per student for classroom instruction. The German experience “gave me the whole implementation model,” Bonoff said.

• The House sponsor of the 2013 bill establishing the MNsure health insurance purchasing exchange has said that he decided to take on that daunting assignment after two trips to Germany, in 2010 and 2012. State Rep. Joe Atkins, DFL-Inver Grove Heights, joked — I think — at a 2013 exchange debriefing: “If MNsure works, we get the credit. If it doesn’t, we’re blaming the Germans!”

• Last month’s German delegation visit to Minnesota — the last in the series — culminated in Gov. Mark Dayton signing “Under 2 MOU,” a global memorandum of understanding among cities, states and regions around the world working to limit this century’s increase in global average temperature to 2 degrees Celsius (3.6 degrees Fahrenheit). Minnesota becomes the sixth state to sign the agreement; adhering to it would mean aggressive efforts to reduce greenhouse gas emissions in coming decades.

• Rochester’s Destination Medical Center project is grand-scale urban renewal, and that makes it akin to the acclaimed harbor-district HafenCity project in Hamburg, Senjem learned in Germany. Last month, he brought developers from Hamburg to Rochester to compare notes and ideas with their counterparts, particularly on energy sustainability.

“It’s not good enough for me to go on an exchange. I’ve got to bring that information back to my community,” Senjem said last week. “This is way bigger than me.”

That’s what travel can do for a state politician. It can introduce them to options they might not otherwise see and possibilities they might not otherwise deem feasible. It can show them that the problems with which they grapple are “way bigger” than the confines of this state, and the solutions can be, too.

Minnesota has never been a parochial place. Now would be a terrible time for this state to turn in that direction. Engel, now a program director at the university’s Institute on the Environment, is seeking funding for energy-related exchanges that would involve other states as well as Minnesota, and municipalities as well as state-level officials. I’m rooting for her to succeed, and hoping other topics can be added again to the Legislature’s foreign-exchange agenda. Senjem said it well: “We can’t look inward in the 21st century. We have to look outward.”

 

Lori Sturdevant, an editorial writer and columnist, is at lsturdevant@startribune.com.