Gov. Linda Lingle stood her ground on the Akaka Bill — and in the end it means she had her way.

Lingle and Sens. Daniel K. Inouye and Daniel Akaka are now back singing from the same page when it comes to the Native Hawaiian Government Reorganization Act. Lingle and Akaka both issued news releases Wednesday announcing agreement on amendments to the bill.

The newfound unity means the Akaka bill may now have its best chance of passage. Lingle, who had recently been a vocal opponent, says she’ll contact senators of all parties to ask them to vote “aye.”

Lingle, who long supported the Akaka bill, had changed her position when the Akaka bill was amended by lawmakers in December. She expressed concern at the time about the possibility of a split society should the Akaka bill become law.

The governor urged Congress not to approve the amended bill, arguing that a Hawaiian governing entity could be “almost completely free from state and county regulation” and may have “almost complete sovereign immunity from lawsuits.”

“We have supported a bill that would set up a process of recognition first, followed by negotiations between the Native Hawaiian governing entity, the State of Hawai‘i, and the United States,” she said in a Feb. 22 news release. “Once that was completed, it would be followed by the Native Hawaiian governing entity’s exercise of governmental powers and authorities. Amendments made to the bill in December 2009 turned that process around. The current bill establishes that the Native Hawaiian governing entity would start with broad governmental powers and authorities, with negotiations to follow.”

Now, the governor says her major concerns, primarily about public health and safety, have been addressed by the new amendments. Her own attorney general, Mark Bennett, helped draft them.

“Everyone Wanted This Bill Passed”

Time was running out on the Akaka bill.

Recent polls show that Democrats could lose both the House and Senate, or lose enough members to weaken their majorities and make it difficult to get a bill to President Obama.

Bennett told Civil Beat the compromise process began “a couple of weeks ago” when he received a call from Patricia Zell, formerly Democratic staff director and chief counsel of the U.S. Senate Committee on Indian Affairs. Both Inouye and Akaka sit on the committee.

“They were asking if we could look again at the language, and I said ‘Sure,'” said Bennett.

Asked if he was fully satisfied with the amendments, Bennett said in his eight years as attorney general he has “never seen a perfect bill” out of any legislative body at either the state or federal level.

“And I don’t think this bill is perfect, but to me the key with these amendments is it addresses our major concerns with the House verison, and that once it did that we were happy to support it,” he said. “People had honest disagreements, and we came to a compromise. But the motivation was that everyone wanted this bill passed.”

Changes Ensure State’s Authority

The amendments will make changes to Section 9 of the bill, according to the news release from Akaka’s office.

“The changes will ensure that during the interim period the Native Hawaiian governing entity will be subject to the state’s regulatory authority affecting public health and safety, until a temporary agreement is reached between the entity and state and approved by the Secretary of the Interior. It will also make clear that the Native Hawaiian governing entity’s officers and employees will not be immune from the state’s criminal laws.”

In her news release, Lingle said that she and Bennett believe the new provisions will: “1) allow the State (and the Counties) to enforce their laws and regulations that protect the health and safety of the people of Hawaii, and 2) explicitly provide that the Native Hawaiian Government Reorganization Act will provide no person immunity from any of the State’s criminal laws.”

She said she “assured Senators Akaka and Inouye that I will strongly support a bill with the changes described above, and will write to Senators of both parties expressing my support. I sincerely hope the bill will become law in 2010.”

If it does, it will be the culmination of a 10-year legislative effort. The bill would create a process for Native Hawaiians to gain federal recognition similar to Native American and Native Alaskan tribes.

Vote Could Come This Month

Lingle’s support was welcomed by the state Office of Hawaiian Affairs.

In a press release issued Wednesday afternoon, OHA said, “The changes clarify that the state laws — as well as health and safety regulations — will apply throughout the negotiation process between the Native Hawaiian governing entity, the State of Hawaii and the U.S. government to determine powers and authorities among the three governing entities.”

Inouye and Akaka said the vote on the revised Akaka Bill could happen as early as this month before the Senate’s long August recess. Inouye said he was informed Wednesday that the recess would be cut short by one week because of pressing Senate business.

“Time is of the essence,” said Inouye, saying the bill would likely not be voted on in September because the Senate will be focused on appropriations. The accounting period for the federal government ends Sept. 30. October is out of the question because of the Nov. 2 election, he said.

If it doesn’t get a floor vote by election time, Akaka’s office says he will push again during the lame-duck period before a new Congress is sworn in come January.

Lingle and Bennett could also travel to D.C. to testify, as they have done in the past.

How It Will Play At Home

The Akaka bill was already a political issue this year.

Lt. Gov. James “Duke” Aiona distanced himself from his boss when he sided with the amendments that had so upset Lingle.

On Wednesday, Aiona, the leading Republican candidate for governor, joined the choir in support of the new amendments: “These changes will help to achieve the broad-based support that this landmark legislation deserves.”

Former Congressman Neil Abercrombie, one of two top Democratic candidates for governor, was instrumental in the bill’s passage through the House. No doubt he’ll toot his horn in his primary race against Mufi Hannemann.

The Akaka bill was also an issue in the special election to replace Abercrombie. Democrat Colleen Hanabusa supported it, but Republican Charles Djou shared the same concerns as Lingle and Bennett.

Now, all of Hawaii’s top leaders may end up sharing the same sheet music when it comes to the Akaka bill.

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