A proposal to use $600 million in new state funding to dramatically rev up construction of housing for Native Hawaiians is poised to pass a key House committee later this week, and appears certain to win the approval of the full House next week.

House Bill 2511 was co-sponsored by 46 House Democrats including House Speaker Scott Saiki, and its progress in the 51-member House appears to be greased. A similar bill has been advancing in the state Senate, and is scheduled for further consideration in the Senate Ways and Means Committee on Thursday.

Both bills as originally proposed would dramatically increase state funding of the Department of Hawaiian Home Lands, which has a list of 28,000 people waiting for land and housing. Some have been waiting for decades to be assigned leases of trust lands under the federal Hawaiian Homes Commission Act of 1920.

The House Finance Committee heard passionate testimony Tuesday in favor of the House measure, and more than 250 Hawaiians and non-Hawaiians submitted written testimony in support of the bill.

DHHL sign
Lawmakers are moving forward with plans to provide an additional $600 million to develop Hawaiian Home Lands, which would be enough money to provide homes for thousands of Native Hawaiians. DHHL

J. Kuhio Lewis, CEO of the Council for Native Hawaiian Advancement, told the committee the measure is “historic.”

He recalled being awarded homestead land a dozen years ago, and “it has provided me amazing opportunities in life, stability, a place for my kids to sleep at night, and this is what you’d be affording thousands of Hawaiians — a shot at life.”

Katie Ruth Kekua said in written testimony that her mother was pure Hawaiian and remained on the Hawaiian Homes wait list from 1974 until she died in 2003, but was never awarded a lease.

“Please take this bill into consideration and approve it for we have many native Hawaiians in need of a place to live,” Kekua wrote. “I, myself and my family are in need and waited for far too long.”

The last time the department received anything close to the proposed infusion of cash was in 1995, when the administration of former Gov. John Waihee agreed to pay $600 million to the department to settle claims over the state’s misuse of homelands.

That settlement was compensation for lands that were earmarked for homesteading by Hawaiians under the 1920 act passed by the Congress, but instead were diverted for other uses such as airports or other public facilities.

That settlement was paid to the department in increments of $30 million per year for 20 years, and the last payment ended in 2015. The settlement allowed the department to build more than 4,000 homes.

The only testimony on Tuesday opposed to the new infusion of cash into Hawaiian Homes came from Kenneth Conklin, a longtime critic of programs designed to specifically benefit Hawaiians.

Conklin noted in written testimony that lawmakers are not proposing any comparable set-aside “exclusively for the other 80% of Hawaii’s people who lack a drop of Hawaiian blood. What about money for DHHL: Department of Haole Homelands?”

Tom Yamachika, president of the Tax Foundation of Hawaii, noted in comments on the bill the Department of Hawaiian Home Lands has not been able to promptly spend federal funding in the past, which led the federal Department of Housing and Urban Development to withhold funding from the department for a time.

“We are very interested in seeing any dysfunction cleared, and relief going to those who deserve it,” Yamachika told the Finance Committee.

House Finance Committee Chairwoman Sylvia Luke deferred action on HB 2511 until Thursday to review some proposed amendments to the bill. She did not specify what amendments might be incorporated into the measure.

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