State Sen. Renee Unterman, R-Buford, stood in the way of a bill state Rep. Scott Holcomb proposed in 2016 to require law enforcement agencies to process thousands of rape kits that had been in storage. She eventually relented under heavy criticism. This year, Holcomb has proposed more legislation along the same lines — to preserve evidence from sexual assaults until cases are solved — and Unterman is sponsoring the bill in the Senate. Bob Andres / bandres@ajc.com

Capitol Recap: After rape-kit spat, ex-foes bond over new Georgia bill

They say time heals all wounds. Or maybe it's election cycles.

Three years ago, state Rep. Scott Holcomb, D-Atlanta, and state Sen. Renee Unterman, R-Buford, clashed over his bill that would — in response to an Atlanta Journal-Constitution investigation — require law enforcement agencies to process thousands of rape kits that had been in storage.

Holcomb’s bill proved popular in the state House, passing on a unanimous vote. But then it hit a wall in the state Senate when Unterman, then chairwoman of the Health and Human Services Committee, blocked it.

The move garnered Unterman plenty of time on television, and not necessarily in a good way. Late-night TV comics jumped on it. But it wasn’t just toss-off one-liners — Samantha Bee devoted an entire unflattering segment to Unterman on her TBS show “Full Frontal.”

A flood of emails and social media messages followed, and Republican allies implored Unterman to change her stance.

In the final minutes of the legislative session, she relented, endorsing additions to the bill, including one to require that victims of sexual assault be notified of their rights. The bill then became law.

Now, Holcomb has visited similar ground with a bill that would preserve sexual assault evidence until cases are solved. There is no deadline. This measure, House Bill 282, also passed unanimously in the House.

What’s different?

Unterman is the bill’s sponsor in the Senate.

What else is different?

Unterman is no longer the chairwoman of the Senate Health and Human Services Committee. This year, she was shoved over to the generally less-powerful Science and Technology Committee. Still, from her perch as the committee’s chairwoman, she is among the most powerful figures concerning the outcome of the anti-abortion “heartbeat bill.” She’s also carrying the measure, House Bill 481, which would prevent abortions once a doctor has detected a heartbeat in the womb.

Is there anything else that is different?

Unterman is seriously considering a run for the 7th Congressional District seat that U.S. Rep. Rob Woodall, R-Lawrenceville, is vacating. Last month, she said, “I’m trying to convince my husband.”

Walk this way: At the General Assembly, it’s important to learn the ropes or you won’t get anywhere.

That’s the lesson following the demonstrations abortion rights supporters have staged in the third-floor halls of the Capitol in response to the “heartbeat bill.”

Officials answered by adding a second layer of rope lines to separate lawmakers from the public as they enter their chambers.

They strung another line of ropes to shield clerks. Some lawmakers say they were told it was intended to insulate young pages from protesters after a federal judge ruled that Capitol police couldn’t ban the display of buttons with naughty words on them.

This past week, House members received new instructions for entering and exiting their chamber. They came with a map dividing legislators into four sections and telling where and when they should speak to lobbyists, constituents and visitors seeking their attention.

One House member called it “an interesting reaction to an abortion protest.”

The price of probably: We’ll never be able to tell for sure whether an investigation into allegations of sexual harassment against then-state Sen. David Shafer of Duluth cost him the GOP nomination for lieutenant governor.

But we are getting a better idea what it cost Georgia taxpayers.

The state Senate Ethics Committee dismissed the complaint a lobbyist filed against Shafer, but only after it hired Atlanta lawyer Penn Payne to investigate the case.

The Atlanta Journal-Constitution was able to obtain a copy of Payne’s 58-page report that said, basically, that Shafer probably didn’t do it.

“My ultimate conclusions,” Payne wrote in the report, “are that it is more likely that Sen. Shafer did not make sexually harassing comments and demands than it is likely that he did.”

The state paid $78,396 for that.

That’s how much the state’s Open Georgia website — which updates all salaries and state expenditures about six months after the end of each fiscal year — says the General Assembly paid Payne in fiscal 2018.

It’s unclear whether there were any other costs associated with the investigation.

Something for the resume: Shafer’s newest pursuit of employment, chairmanship of the Georgia GOP, received a helping hand this past week from News 95.5 and AM 750 WSB commentator Erick Erickson.

Erickson wrote on Twitter that, while he’s not a GOP delegate, he backs Shafer to lead the state’s Republicans.

Others running for the job are Bruce Azevedo of Forsyth County and Scott Johnson of Cobb County.

The election is in May at the party’s state convention in Savannah.

Keep an eye out for this one:Senate Bill 72 has not received much attention, so far, this session. But it’s now on the radar for both gun rights supporters and those seeking new firearms restrictions.

The bill proposes lifting penalties for hunters using silencers and suppressors on their weapons.

In 2014, Gov. Nathan Deal signed into law a measure that allowed the use of noise suppressors for hunting on private property with the landowner’s permission. Violators can currently be charged with a misdemeanor.

The language in SB 72, now in the House after passing the Senate, would remove all threats of penalties from hunters caught using silencers.

But that’s not necessarily why it’s of such keen interest.

Its status as a firearms bill makes possible the rise of the Frankenbill, legislation that’s ripped apart, only to be reanimated with new parts from other bills that, in the words of Miracle Max, are “mostly dead.” What was a proposal on hunters using silencers could be transformed, using language and ideas that failed to pass the Crossover Day threshold, into any kind of new gun rule.

Potential candidates for donor parts:

  • House Bill 2, which would have eliminated licensing and permit requirements for any Georgian who is legally allowed to carry a gun. The bill also would have eliminated bans on carrying “long guns” into state parks, historic sites or recreational areas.
  • House Bill 74, which would have barred ride-sharing companies such as Lyft and Uber from prohibiting drivers who hold a state-issued license from carrying a firearm.

In a hurry: No sense waiting for the inevitable.

Secretary of State Brad Raffensperger has put out a request for proposal for a $150 million statewide voting system that combines touchscreen machines and paper ballots.

He did it on March 15.

What’s significant about that? Georgia’s switch in voting machines still isn’t official. Gov. Brian Kemp still hasn’t signed it into law.

Nobody doubts he will sign it. It’s been pretty clear for some time that this is the format the state would choose. Here’s some of the evidence:

  • It was the choice of the commission Kemp created while still Georgia’s secretary of state to select a new voting system. That was even over the objections of the commission’s lone cybersecurity expert, who raised the same issue as most touchscreen opponents that the system was vulnerable to hacking. (Touchscreen supporters have always made the case that the state’s voters are familiar with that type of system, and there was always a chance that stray marks on a paper ballot would force it to be discarded.)
  • The governor set aside $150 million in his spending plan for the purchase of a voting system, matching the estimated cost that the state’s current voting machine vendor, Election Systems & Software, put on a touchscreen system. Estimates for a system requiring pen and paper ballot have generally been about $30 million, although Raffensperger has challenged that figure while being challenged on his own higher figure.
  • Kemp also made former state Rep. Charles Harper, a former lobbyist for Election Systems & Software, as his deputy chief of staff.

Republican legislators have generally backed the touchscreen system, while Democrats favor the hand-marked system.

An AJC poll in January showed only 34 percent of Georgia registered voters favored touchscreens, lagging behind the preference for hand-marked ballots by 20 percentage points.

Bidding on Raffensperger’s request for proposal will run through mid-April. A conference for potential vendors has been scheduled for March 28.

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