Could this be the year that the state makes good on its 30-year-old promise to Native Hawaiians?

Lawmakers are considering a pair of proposals that would transfer more than $200 million in cash and land holdings to the Office of Hawaiian Affairs.

The settlement, reached in 2008 with then-Gov. Linda Lingle, stems from the 1978 Constitutional Convention that established OHA and called for the state to share the revenue from so-called “ceded lands.”

(Read OHA’s report [pdf] on how the $200 million figure was reached after years of negotiations.)

Measures to make the settlement a reality have stalled in the Hawaii Legislature in recent sessions. But this year, near-identical bills in both the House and Senate are moving forward, and appear to have the support of leaders.

“Let us not forget our commitment to the Hawaiian people,” Senate President Shan Tsutsui said in his opening day speech [pdf]. “With seven members of the Senate of Hawaiian heritage, we will look to them to lead us in dealing with issues that will affect the Hawaiian community. Let us work with stakeholders and move forward on a Ceded Lands Settlement to fulfill our responsibility to the Native Hawaiian community.”

Gov. Neil Abercrombie hasn’t taken a position on either of the bills. Press secretary Donalyn Dela Cruz told Civil Beat in an e-mail that it’s still very early in the legislative session and that Abercrombie won’t decide until the final bill lands on his desk. Still, she indicated he’d be open to the idea.

“The governor has stated that he would like to see a settlement over the ceded lands revenues dispute by bringing all parties together in support of lasting solutions,” Dela Cruz wrote.

The bills would transfer $200 million from the public land trust to OHA, but not right away. Starting in Fiscal Year 2015, the state will pay $30 million a year until the full debt, including 4 percent annual interest that started accruing last July, is paid. The state can include land in lieu of some or all of the cash.

Senate Bill 984 is set for hearing before the Hawaiian Affairs and Judiciary and Labor Committees Wednesday afternoon.1

Senate Hawaiian Affairs Chairman Brickwood Galuteria told Civil Beat that while it’s still premature to promise any results, he believes OHA and new Attorney General David Louie will be able to find “creative solutions and collaborative solutions.”

Messages left for Senate Judiciary and Labor Chairman Clayton Hee were not returned.

“I can’t speak for my fellow senators, I can only speak for myself,” Galuteria said. “OHA is expressing this type of reality, there’s a sense of collaboration here. They could come to the table a lot harder, but they’re coming to the table very reasonably.”

Senate Ways and Means Chairman David Ige — whose committee would get the bill next if it makes it that far —
told Civil Beat his primary goal right now is to make sure everything balances out in the next biennium budget and that he’s only had a chance to skim SB984.

He said that it’s important to settle the decades-old ceded lands dispute, but said he’s “concerned” about leaving the final details of the settlement up to the sole discretion of the governor and OHA.

“It’s a lot more straightforward if it’s an explicit proposal before the Legislature of lands and funds rather than an open-ended thing,” he said. “I just think it’s a lot easier if they’ve identified parcels and all that. … When it’s open-ended, it’s really hard to make the determination of what’s appropriate or equivalent.”

Similar concerns were raised across the hallway in the House of Representatives.

House Judiciary Chairman Gilbert Keith-Agaran told Civil Beat that his committee will be looking at the proposal from a legal perspective, and that he expected “we’re probably going to need to tweak it.”

House Bill 399 passed unanimously out of the Hawaiian Affairs and Water, Land and Ocean Committees in late January. The bill was referred to Keith-Agaran’s committee, though no hearings have yet been scheduled.

He pointed to three sections of Senate Bill 995 — which made it all the way to conference committee in 2009 before stalling — as ideas he might want to insert into the new bill. He said he’s not sure if lawmakers will be comfortable signing off unless agreed-upon land transfers come back to the Legislature for final approval.

“I think if the changes are made, then I’d probably be looking to make a recommendation to move it to the Finance Committee so we can continue the discussion,” Keith-Agaran said. “I’m thinking there will be some vehicle dealing with this that moves forward. … The devil’s gonna be in the details.”

House Finance Committee Chairman Marcus Oshiro said he’d wait to see the work of the Judiciary Committee before discussing the prospects for the bill.

The bills were introduced by Senate President Tsutsui and House Speaker Calvin Say at OHA’s request. The measure was among the agency’s legislative package [pdf], and the OHA Board of Trustees’ new chairwoman, Collette Machado, has said finalizing the deal is her top priority.

A letter from Machado to Abercrombie appeared in the February 2011 edition of OHA’s newsletter, Ka Wai Ola:

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