House Speaker Joe Souki pounded the gavel and demanded a recess Thursday afternoon, shutting down Republican Rep. Gene Ward’s plea to talk two more minutes about how the Legislature has let down Native Hawaiians for decades.

“The House will not allow you to speak a third time,” Souki said when the floor session resumed. “Can we get on with it?”

That wrapped up 30 minutes of sometimes-heated discussion before lawmakers passed House Bill 1932, which calls on the state to pay up after shortchanging the Department of Hawaiian Home Lands.

Just how much more the state might pay up remains to be seen, because the bill does not cite a specific amount of money — at one point a state judge said it should be about $18 million more.

Hawaiian Home Lands Deputy Director William Aila, left in blue shirt, stands while the House begins its floor session Tuesday with "Hawaii Pono'i."
Hawaiian Home Lands Deputy Director William Aila, left in blue shirt, stands while the House begins its floor session Tuesday with “Hawaii Pono’i.” Nathan Eagle/Civil Beat

“This product here is a half a loaf,” Ward said. “It doesn’t get where it should be going.”

He noted there are 27,000 Native Hawaiians on the waiting list for homestead lands, and that the amended version of the bill no longer even references the court case that spurred it.

Eligible Native Hawaiians are entitled to certain land parcels that were put in a trust in the 1920s. The DHHL is tasked with placing these beneficiaries on homestead lands.

“We should not create false expectations. There is no dollar amount in the order.” — Rep. Scott Saiki, House majority leader

A judge has ordered the state to fulfill its constitutional duty “to make sufficient sums available” to the department for its administrative and operating budget.

The Legislature provided $9.6 million for this fiscal year, which started June 30, but the judge suggested lawmakers should find another $18 million.

First Circuit Judge Jeannette Castagnetti said there is substantial evidence in the trial record of Nelson vs. Hawaiian Homes Commission to support the court’s factual findings that a total of at least $28 million is needed for fiscal 2016.

House leaders aren’t so sure, though, and have zeroed in on the wiggle room in “sufficient sums” verbiage from the court order.

Rep Gene Ward gestures on the floor. 27 april 2015. photograph by Cory Lum/Civil Beat
Rep. Gene Ward on the House floor last April. On Thursday, he said the Hawaiian Home Lands bill “is a half a loaf. It doesn’t get where it should be going.” Cory Lum/Civil Beat

“We should not create false expectations” for the public or the department, Democratic Rep. Scott Saiki, the majority leader, said. “There is no dollar amount in the order.”

DHHL Deputy Director William Aila Jr. listened to the House floor discussion with a handful of others in the gallery, some wearing blue shirts like his that read, “Fund Hawaiian Home Lands NOW.”

He said after the vote that he remains “cautiously optimistic.”

The bill now heads to the Senate for its consideration. Thursday was the deadline for all non-budget bills to cross over from one chamber to the other.

“We’re very pleased with the unanimous vote in the House chamber,” Aila said. “We’re cautiously optimistic to see what happens in the Senate, and so we will continue to monitor the situation as it moves forward there.”

Rep. Lynn DeCoite, a freshman Democratic lawmaker who has homestead lands on Molokai, called the vote a “historic step” to provide overdue funding for the department. She introduced the bill with 15 other lawmakers.

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