Heeding the complaints of homesteaders and a Hawaii judge, a state Senate committee on Monday agreed to reimburse the Department of Hawaiian Home Lands in the amount of $28.4 million for the current fiscal year.
House Bill 1932 originally called for that amount for fiscal year 2016-2017 in light of a court finding in November that DHHL has not been appropriated “sufficient sums” for its administrative and operating expenses.
But the bill, which passed the House nearly unanimously on March 10, was heavily amended and the dollar amount slashed. That amended bill said nothing about the court ruling or the historical and legal context for funding qualified Native Hawaiian beneficiaries.
The House also left the dollar amount blank for the reimbursement, though it was largely assumed it would be only $9.6 million, the amount that the department was previously funded.
But now, the Senate Hawaiian Affairs Committee has voted 3-0 to pay DHHL the larger amount for current fiscal year. HB 1932 now awaits a vote in Senate Ways and Means, where its prospects are uncertain.
That’s because House and Senate leaders and the administration of Gov. David Ige sought to reject the findings of First Circuit Court Judge Jeannette Castagnetti, who said the government has a constitutional duty to sufficiently fund DHHL. She specifically mentioned the $28 million figure in her initial ruling, but later clarified it to say the state should provide “sufficient” funds.
Meanwhile, DHHL’s funding for the new fiscal year that begins July 1 is currently capped at $9.6 million in the budget bill.
DHHL is the agency tasked with awarding lands to Hawaiians who have 50 percent Hawaiian blood.
The dispute over funding the agency centered in part on whether the judicial branch could order an appropriation from the legislative and executive branch. The judge conceded that she could not, but she made clear that DHHL had long been shortchanged by the other two branches.
Testifiers before Hawaiian Affairs made clear their frustration — even anger — over the Legislature’s reluctance to give DHHL what it says it needs. Lawmakers have been critical of the agency’s difficulty in placing Hawaiians on homestead land.
But DHHL officials and homesteaders say the agency needs more money in order to do its job.
De Mont Conner, who represents a group called Ho’omana Pono and who lives on homestead land in Waianae, told the Senate committee that what is owed to DHHL is similar to taxpayers owing the government money every year.
“I am asking this legislative body to do what’s right today by their oath to the Constitution and not play with the beneficiaries anymore.”—Paula Aila
“You want every nickel due to you, so you owe Hawaiian Home Lands,” he said. “And in my opinion we should be first on the list (in getting paid).”
Paula Aila, a DHHL employee testifying as an individual, said she grew up on Waimanalo homestead land — an experience she described as “very dear” to her heart.
“I am asking this legislative body to do what’s right today by their oath to the Constitution and not play with the beneficiaries anymore,” said Aila. “They are exhausted.”
Homelani Schaedel, who lives on homestead lands in Kapolei, demanded of the Senate committee, “Why are we having to beg?”
And David Lopes of Nanakuli expressed his disdain for the Legislature this way: “You Americans, you come and shit on us and put me on this little piece of land, when I own it all. … $28 million — it’s nothing! Where the money go?”
The only testimony in opposition to HB 1932 came from Ken Conklin of the Center for Hawaiian Sovereignty Studies. He argued that the Legislature has a fiduciary obligation to the taxpayers to “protect the public … against unreasonable or illegal demands” and said that the Office of Hawaiian Affairs with “$650 million in assets, including $350 million in its investment portfolio” should fund DHHL.
During the testimony, only one member of Hawaiian Affairs was present — the chair, Maile Shimabukuro, who represents the area of the Waianae Coast area that has the largest number of homesteaders on Oahu. The other four members, including vice chair Kalani English — the highest-ranking Native Hawaiian in the Senate — were absent.
Shimabukuro explained that her colleagues had other commitments. When it came time to vote, Democrat Lorraine Inouye and Republican Sam Slom showed up, but not English nor Democrat Donna Mercado Kim.