It took many of the state’s sharpest legal and political minds months of hard work but the result was the enactment of historic legislation that settles a $200 million tab from the state to the Office of Hawaiian Affairs.

But in the end it might not have been possible were it not for Gov. Neil Abercrombie. His administration was able to do what his predecessors were not: resolve a 30-year-old unresolved claim to income and proceeds from ceded lands.

History will show whether the conveying of 10 parcels in Kakaako Makai to OHA is actually a good deal, though Abercrombie has said repeatedly that he believes the value of the 25 acres of contiguous and adjacent land will only grow.

And the issue of ceded lands is not over. The OHA-Kakaako settlement has no effect on claims to sovereignty, or to claims related to ceded lands after this July. OHA’s current annual share of ceded-land receipts is $15.1 million.

But give the governor his due.

It was his attorney general, David Louie, that crafted the proposal with OHA attorney Bill Meheula, and it was Abercrombie staff like Blake Oshiro and Kate Stanley who helped shepherd the controversial bill through the unpredictable Hawaii Legislature.

It was also Abercrombie’s friendship with OHA Chair Colette Machado and his obvious love and respect for Native Hawaiians that helped make things happen.

Quoting U.S. Sen. Daniel Akaka, who sat in the front row of the bill-signing ceremony Wednesday at Washington Place, Abercrombie said, “It’s important to do things right. … In Hawaiian we call it pono.”

An Unamended Bill

It’s difficult to recall the last time a controversial piece of legislation made it through the Legislature without a single word being changed from introduction to passage.

Yet, that’s what happened with Senate Bill 2783.

When two House committees did amend the bill on March 12 with technical language, arms were twisted behind closed doors to reverse that action just two days later.

Had SB 2783 been amended, it would have sent the legislation to conference committee, where lawmakers could tinker with the bill without public input and scrutiny.

Sen. Clayton Hee, a former OHA chair who fought for ceded land payments, strongly criticized SB 2783 as inadequate. Hee was not in attendance Wednesday at Washington Place, nor was Sen. Malama Solomon, another former OHA member who also expressed reservations about the bill.

The administration also managed the delicate business of keeping another Kakaako land bill from being linked directly to SB 2783.

House Bill 2819, which now heads to conference committee, would exempt two Kakaako Makai parcels from a state law prohibiting residential development.

Under the settlement, those parcels now belong to OHA and could provide a revenue stream to the agency. But OHA and the administration did not take a position on HB 2819.

‘Faith, Hope, Love’

The governor had reason to boast, but instead he made little mention of his role in SB 2783’s passage.

After reading a sermon delivered from the Rev. Abraham Akaka — the senator’s late brother — at the time of statehood, Abercrombie largely turned the bill-signing ceremony over to Machado.

The result was a lively, loud, chicken-skin event equal to the historic occasion.

Machado called for a three-piece Hawaiian music band to play “Ekolu Mea Nui,” a hymn which means “The Three Greatest Things.”

“Faith, hope and love,” said Machado, first in Hawaiian and then in English.

During the song, Machado’s predecessor, Haunani Apoliona, went to the podium microphone and joined in singing along, her arm around Machado.

It was also a touchingly personal ceremony. Machado recognized the late Frenchy DeSoto, whom she called “the mother of OHA,” and former Gov. John Waihee, who was instrumental in helping found OHA through the 1978 Constitutional Convention.

Machado also praised the late UH Law Professor Jon Van Dyke.

“Is Jesse here?” she asked the audience, knowing that Akaka’s communications director, Jesse Broder Van Dyke, was certain to be in attendance. “I honor your dad because he established the framework. … And I thank you … mahalo nui.”

Perhaps Machado’s greatest praise was for Abercrombie.

Observing that he had signed legislation last year recognizing Native Hawaiians as the indigenous population and establishing a roll commission to begin counting Hawaiians for a new government, she said the governor “willed this to happen.”

Abercrombie was so happy that he invoked a familiar phrase he hasn’t said much about lately.

Signing SB 2783 with a koa pen, he said, “We begin this new day for Native Hawaiians.”

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