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Governor's Race: A Look at Molly Kelly's Record in the New Hampshire Senate

Annie Ropeik for NHPR

As Molly Kelly makes her case to voters that she should be New Hampshire’s next governor, a recurrent argument is that her time in the state Senate proves that she is up to the task of leading New Hampshire.

“As governor, I think it is very important that you have that experience to work with legislators, and that you are ready day one," she recently said on the trail.

NHPR’s Josh Rogers covered the State House during Molly Kelly’s time as a senator. He joins Morning Edition to discuss her record.

Note: This transcript has been lightly edited for clarity. 

Molly Kelly says it at pretty much every campaign stop - that her 10 years at the State House show her breadth, and her readiness to be governor.

That is her argument. And it is beyond dispute that Molly Kelly did take many votes as a senator, and they do give you pretty good idea of where she comes from on issues. And, perhaps unsurprisingly, her record shows she’s always voted for Democratic priorities and has been a solid member of her caucus, whether her party was in the majority or minority.

Are there specific examples that illustrate the way she worked as a senator?

We could look at education, and the school funding issue. Not long after Molly Kelly arrived in Concord in 2007, then-governor John Lynch proposed a school funding constitutional amendment that aimed to give lawmakers a freer hand when it came to distributing school aid.

As you know, per the Claremont rulings, the state is on the hook to pay for 100 percent of an “adequate” education. Governor Lynch and a mostly Democratic bunch of lawmakers proposed reducing that share to 50 percent with the proviso that funding choices must promote “equal opportunity for every child.

“Senator Janeway? Yes. Senator Odell? Yes. Senator Roberge? No. Senator Kelly? Yes.”

So that measure cleared the senate with Molly Kelly’s support?

Yes, and as school funding amendments always have, the policy died a fairly ugly death in the New Hampshire House. But fast-forward five years later,  when Governor Lynch was pushing another amendment, this time he was working with Republicans. Kelly was quick to join the senate Democratic caucus in opposition. Here she was speaking on NHPR back then:

“What we need to do is move on beyond the funding debate and move into a discussion of the results of that funding.  Are the results of that funding providing the education that our students and our communities need.”

So squarely in line with the Democratic caucus on major issues……

Very much so.

Now Molly Kelly did lead the senate’s education committee for a time. Are there education bills she had a hand in that are tell us something about her?

Well,  in the tape we just heard she alluded to a bill she sponsored. It required schools to prove they were meeting academic standards by submitting reports to the state showing students were getting instruction in language, arts, math and science. Accountability was for a long time a missing piece in the state’s efforts to comply with the Claremont rulings on education. Molly Kelly was the sponsored of that bill, which passed when Democrats has the majority.

Are there other major education bills she authored?

I guess it depends on what you define as "major." There were some anti-bullying proposals, cyber and otherwise. There is also a bill that barred school districts from serving alternative lunches to students whose lunch accounts were in arrears.

What about bills in other areas?

Well, the bill she’s spent the most time talking up concerns group net metering, which allows power producers to sell electricity back onto the grid.  Molly Kelly sponsored it and it did boost growth in small hydropower generation, and led to some medium solar projects under a megawatt. So fair to call it significant, but was it as big a deal as she’s making it out to be, probably not.

Besides energy, another area Kelly talks up a lot is her work on drugs. What has she done there?

Well Molly Kelly was certainly engaged in drug policy for a number of years. And not simply opioids. She chaired a committee on synthetic drugs like spice and bath salts and then later authored the bill that outlawed their sale.

I recall that Governor Hassan had declared a state of emergency over synthetic drugs

She did and this bill, that Kelly wrote passed the senate unanimously back in 2014.

One subtext of Molly Kelly’s pitch to voters is that she can bring folks together across the aisle. Did you find any good examples of that on more divisive issues?

I think it’s fair to say that Molly Kelly’s reputation as a senator has never been as a point person to break up partisan logjams on big issues. But I know of one issue one that may be telling, and it concerns drugs, specifically a tweak to the state’s child protection statute to add substance misuse as a trigger for state intervention.

This bill became law back in 2016, and of course was prompted by the opioid crisis, and there in the GOP-led senate, some conservatives feared allowing the state to intercede, and possibly take children out of homes based on drug addiction alone, not demonstrated neglect would trammel on parental rights.   

As a compromise, Molly Kelly proposed making that change temporary – four years, a period long enough, she hoped for the opioid problem to be under control.

“With the sunset there, we will really address that fragile balance between protecting children and parental rights.

"Thank you senator Kelly, Senator Avard?"

"I just rise in support of the amendment and I think my senate colleague in district 12 for presenting it. I think this a step forward.”

That’s GOP Senator Kevin Avard...

As you can hear, Kelly’s proposal helped swing his vote. The bill passed the senate unanimously. No way that would have happened without Kelly’s amendment.

Josh has worked at NHPR since 2000.

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