A key Senate committee voted unanimously Wednesday to advance a bill that strips the University of Hawaii’s management authority of Mauna Kea and puts responsibility for the lands into the hands of a new governing group.

House Bill 2024 passed the Senate Higher Education committee with several amendments following hours of testimony on Tuesday from University of Hawaii officials, astronomers and Native Hawaiians.

The amendments reduced the number of Native Hawaiians on the 11-member voting panel after the Attorney General’s Office raised constitutional concerns that the panel should not be race-based if it was making decisions about state lands and resources. A previous draft of the bill specified that the panel had to consist of Native Hawaiians.

The amendments include giving the Maunakea Observatories representation on the new management panel. The university president will be replaced with a university Board of Regents member on the panel, while the University of Hawaii Hilo chancellor would be a non-voting member.

Experts on primary education and finance will also have a seat on the panel. The amendments also will allow the Senate president and House Speaker to select members for the panel.

Each member of the management group would serve a three-year term.

Previously, the panel would have been made up of Native Hawaiians, cultural practitioners and Hawaii island residents to oversee the astronomy district. Other members included the head of the Department of Land and Natural Resources and the chair of the Office of Hawaiian Affairs.

Senator Donna Mercado Kim speaks to media about the recent news about the closure of the Red Hill fuel facility at the Capitol.
The Senate Higher Education Committee passed a bill that strips the University of Hawaii’s management authority of Mauna Kea. Sen. Donna Mercado Kim is the chair. Cory Lum/Civil Beat/2022

Sen. Donna Mercado Kim, who chairs the committee, said the purpose of Tuesday’s hearing was to determine whether the university was a responsible manager of the tallest mountain in the state.

“What we found is that the management of Mauna Kea has become very divisive,” Kim said, adding that the university was slow to address management issues and lacked community engagement.

The university has managed most of the lands on Mauna Kea’s summit since 1968, under a 65-year lease granted by the state. Critics continue to point to what they say is a long record of mismanagement, despite a report last year that says the university has improved its management practices.

The new management group would be in charge of developing a plan on how to manage land use, recreation use, stewardship, education, research, and the overall operation on the summit. The bill was amended so that the panel would only manage lands above the 9,200-foot level instead of the 6,500-foot level.

The bill still calls for a transition period of three years. The amendments put the start date at July 1, 2023.

The executive director of the Center for Mauna Kea Management would lead the panel which would have to be audited every seven years.

The committee also amended the bill to appropriate $12 million to the Mauna Kea Management Special Fund.

Noe Noe Wong-Wilson, who was on the Mauna Kea working group created by House Speaker Scott Saiki, said that reducing the number of Native Hawaiians and adding astronomers on the panel concerned her.

“They added a seat for astronomy, and to me, that puts it (the panel) out of balance,” Wong-Wilson said.

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