At the beginning of the 2019 Legislature, there seemed to be wide support for providing the Office of Hawaiian Affairs more money — as much as $20 million more — from the former crown lands.

But with just weeks left in the session, the House and Senate disagree on how much more money OHA should get — if any.

House Bill 402 resurrects a longstanding debate over ceded lands, crown lands that the U.S. took after the overthrow of the Hawaiian Kingdom. The state now controls the land and uses the revenue to pay for hospitals, schools and environmental initiatives.

Hawaii amended its constitution in 1978 to establish OHA and direct that 20 percent of the ceded land revenues should go to the betterment of Native Hawaiians. But there’s disagreement over what constitutes 20% and right now, OHA’s annual revenue is capped at around $15 million.

Rep. Daniel Holt introduced HB 402 to raise OHA’s annual share of revenues to $35 million and give OHA about $140 million in back pay.

Rep. Daniel Holt, sponsor of the bill to lift the current cap on the amount of money OHA can draw from ceded land revenues, said, “I think we can all agree that $15 million is way too low.” Nathan Eagle/Civil Beat

The House passed the proposal without any specific dollar amounts. Sen. Donovan Dela Cruz’s Ways and Means Committee amended the bill Friday to remove any appropriations and instead create a negotiating committee.

Holt says he’s hopeful lawmakers can come to an agreement in conference committee, the period of negotiations at the conclusion of each session.

“I think we can all agree that $15 million is way too low,” he said. “We spend this kind of money on a lot of other things that are not as important as taking care of the people of Hawaii.”

OHA has been trying for years to increase its share of public land trust revenue. The agency’s public policy manager, Jocelyn Doane, says the amount hasn’t been adjusted for more than a decade.

“These lands are the lands of our people that they continue to have claims to,” Doane says. “The state should follow up on its commitment both constitutionally and statutorily to Native Hawaiians by ensuring that they are getting a fair share of their revenue from these lands.”

State agencies transfer 20% of their revenue from ceded lands to OHA. But Doane says that the $15 million annual cap means there is $20 million sitting unused in a fund.

But more revenue for OHA may mean less revenue for state agencies. Hawaii’s state hospital system, the University of Hawaii and the Department of Land and Natural Resources all raised concerns about the proposal in public testimony.

OHA Office of Hawaiian Affairs office. 6 sept 2016
Lawmakers are debating how much additional revenue the Office of Hawaiian Affairs should get from ceded land payments. Cory Lum/Civil Beat

There’s also the question of how to calculate how much money OHA should get. Holt says there’s a debate over whether OHA should receive 20% of gross or net revenues. On the flip side, many Hawaiians don’t agree that 20%  is enough.

“I’m not saying it’s going to be easy, but it can be done. That’s what we are here to do,” Holt says.

The latest version of the bill amended by Dela Cruz calls for the creation of a negotiating committee to determine how much more money OHA should receive. The Society for Professional Journalists raised concerns about whether the committee would be subject to the open government provisions of the Sunshine Law.

Dela Cruz’s draft also calls for an audit of all state programs that service Hawaiians.

Dela Cruz wasn’t available for comment but said before Friday’s hearing that he wanted a more consistent process for how state agencies inventory ceded land.

Fiscal Responsibility

Another reason HB 402 isn’t sailing through the Legislature is a concern about how OHA spends its money.

Last year, a state audit criticized OHA’s spending, particularly decisions by OHA trustees and its CEO, Kamana’opono Crabbe. Two of the agency’s trustees were slapped with hefty ethics fines and the state attorney general and FBI both reportedly launched investigations.

Holt says he’s heard concerns about OHA’s spending from everybody, including his colleagues, but believes that’s a separate conversation from the state’s obligation to increase public trust land revenue.

Doane agrees.

“The reason why OHA was created was that the public thought Hawaiians can better decide for themselves how to spend their money and improve conditions for Native Hawaiians,” she said. “You could second-guess any policymakers’ decision on how to allocate resources to fix an issue.”

She said the funding cap limits what OHA can accomplish for the Hawaiian community. OHA funds a variety of programs ranging from fishpond restoration to Hawaiian immersion schools. The agency only gave out 10 grants in a recent funding cycle despite receiving more than 80 applications.

Lilikalā Kameʻeleihiwa, a professor at the University of Hawaii, says that OHA funding enabled the university to create a master’s program for Hawaiian Studies.

OHA could do very great things if they had more money,” she said. 

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