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Gov. David Ige announced Monday he is asking state lawmakers to approve $17.1 million to cover the Department of Hawaiian Home Lands’ operating budget and administrative expenses for fiscal 2016, which ends June 30.
It’s the most the state has ever provided the historically underfunded agency, but it’s still short of the $28 million that the department — and a judge — have said is needed. The $17.1 million includes the $9.6 million already appropriated for the current fiscal year.
Ige submitted the funding request in a governor’s message to House and Senate leaders. Now it’s up to the Legislature to decide whether to approve it.
One of the department’s main goals is to help Native Hawaiians acquire homestead lands. The waiting list is now 27,700 people long. It was 5,700 when the mandate was enacted in 1978.
First Circuit Judge Jeannette Castagnetti ruled in November in the Nelson v. Hawaiian Homes Commission case that the state must fulfill its constitutional duty to make “sufficient” sums available to the department for its administrative and operating budget.
The judge decided not to order the governor and Legislature to pay a specific amount after concerns arose about separation of powers. But Castagnetti said last month that there is “substantial evidence” in the trial record to support the court’s factual findings that “sufficient” means at least $28 million.
“This is not a settlement of the Nelson case,” Ige said at a press conference Monday afternoon. “This is the executive fulfilling its requirement.”
Ige said he limited his funding request to an additional $8 million in large part because the department has a history of vacant positions. The governor said the $17.1 million provides funding for positions that are actually filled and other program costs.
The proposed budget for the 2017 fiscal year, which starts July 1, is currently $9.6 million. The governor has proposed increasing that to $23.5 million.
Ige left the mechanics of how to provide the additional funding up to state lawmakers. The most likely avenues are the overall state budget or a bill that would reimburse the department for the current fiscal year.
The latest draft of House Bill 1932 cleared the Senate Hawaiian Affairs Committee, chaired by Sen. Maile Shimabukuro, on March 23 and included $28 million.
Its next stop is the Judiciary and Labor Committee, chaired by Sen. Gil Keith-Agaran, and the Ways and Means Committee, chaired by Sen. Jill Tokuda. A hearing has not been scheduled yet.
The overall budget bill, House Bill 1700, is set to be heard Tuesday morning by Ways and Means.
“We want to give DHHL the tools and flexibility to reform and restructure the department,” Ige said. “I will hold DHHL accountable, with the ultimate goal of giving beneficiaries greater access to DHHL programs and services.”
Attorney General Doug Chin said the governor’s message requesting the money for DHHL is fulfilling the executive branch’s constitutional duty to provide sufficient funds for the department. He said now it’s up to the Legislature to fulfill its obligations by appropriating the money.
Rep. Kaniela Ing, who chairs the House Hawaiian Affairs Committee, said the governor’s appropriation message to the Legislature represents a “huge first step” in meeting the state’s constitutional obligation to Native Hawaiians.
“Now the Legislature needs to do its job and ensure DHHL’s operations and maintenance costs are covered so that from now on the proceeds from the trust funds are used solely for putting native Hawaiians back on the land,” he said in a statement.
“This appropriation also represents a test for DHHL as the public money being used for these new positions will all be a matter of public record and must be reported back to the legislature,” Ing continued. “This additional funding needs to be attached to a clear timeline of hard outcomes to reduce the waitlist and restore native Hawaiians to the land.”
Rep. Gene Ward left the press conference early after hearing the $17 million figure, which he later said “just doesn’t cut it.”
This charge to help Native Hawaiians get back on the land dates back to 1920 when Congress passed the Organic Act creating the Hawaiian Homes Commission and set aside 203,300 acres of land “to rehabilitate Native Hawaiians, particularly in returning them to the land to maintain traditional ties to the land,” Ward said in a statement Monday afternoon.
“Fulfilling this promise to the Hawaiians has been dismal, embarrassing, and unfair, and Governor Ige’s inflated rhetoric today will do little to reduce the over 27,000 Hawaiians on the DHHL Wait List,” Ward said. “Governor Ige may mean well, but this budget will not keep the state out of court.”
Chin said the litigation is ongoing. The plaintiffs in the case have asked the judge to reinstate a $28 million order to force the state to appropriate the money.
“This is definitely a positive step in the right direction, and the Department of Hawaiian Home Lands will capitalize on this momentum as we continue to work with the Legislature to close the gap before the end of this legislative session,” said Jobie Masagatani, Hawaiian Homes Commission chair and DHHL director, in a statement.
The Nelson case began in 2007 when six Native Hawaiian beneficiaries filed suit against the state for failure to appropriate sufficient sums to DHHL for administrative and operating expenses, as mandated by the state Constitution.
The Hawaii Supreme Court in 2012 ruled in favor of the plaintiffs, Richard “Dickie” Nelson III, Keli‘i “Skippy” Ioane, Sherilyn Adams, Kaliko Chun, James Akiona and Charles Aipia.
Read the governor’s full message below.