Native Hawaiian communities who for years have clamored for more support from the state are coming out the big winners at this year’s legislative session.

On Tuesday, the state reached a historic $328 million settlement agreement with individuals who have waited decades for land under the control of the Department of Hawaiian Home Lands.

On Thursday, lawmakers followed up that agreement with $600 million for DHHL to build more houses, acquire more land and provide rental and mortgage assistance to those languishing on the DHHL waitlist that has grown to more than 28,000 applicants.

Those two measures alone bring the sum of legislative support for Hawaiian communities this year to close to $1 billion, a total not seen in decades and one that lawmakers thought impossible just a few months ago.

“This is the most significant action for the Hawaiian community in 100 years,” Sen. Jarrett Keohokalole said shortly before lawmakers voted on House Bill 2511, the DHHL funding measure.

Department of Hawaiian Home Lands Director William Aila hugs Sen. Lynn DeCoite after a key legislative committee approved a $600 million funding proposal for DHHL. Cory Lum/Civil Beat/2022

The bill now faces a final vote in the House and Senate before heading up to Gov. David Ige’s office. It’s one of dozens of measures moving forward ahead of a deadline to clear conference committees on Friday.

Among those measures advancing are bills to provide public school students with menstrual products, enhance furlough programs for female prisoners and reduce the cost of public records.

HB 2511 would give DHHL three years to spend the $600 million allocated by lawmakers. There’s already a list of projects the department could tackle laid out in a Senate draft of the bill. Officials said they still need to develop a plan to spend all the money.

HB 2511 cruised through a conference committee of senators and representatives in a unanimous vote.

Much applause filled conference Room 325 at the State Capitol after the bill’s passage. Lawmakers briefly postponed their next hearing to embrace DHHL Chair William Aila, who is also a homesteader.

After the hearing, DHHL Deputy Director Tyler Iokepa Gomes said the level of funding was unexpected.

“Many people tried to prepare us for a potential let down,” Gomes said. “We are just really, supremely happy with the commitment Chairs (Donovan) Dela Cruz and (Sylvia) Luke made at the beginning of session. They stuck with it until the end.”

The $600 million DHHL proposal headlined opening day of the 2022 session. Dela Cruz and Luke have been aided by a significant funding surplus for the state.

Gomes said the department must be more aggressive in its approach to developing more housing projects. Besides more housing units, the department can also use a portion of the $600 million to continue a rental assistance program that began during the pandemic.

How much money would be allocated across those programs hasn’t been determined yet.

“Through the planning, we’ll figure out what that balance looks like,” Gomes said.

In a phone interview, former Gov. John Waihee called this session a “banner year” for Native Hawaiians.

“Not just a banner year, a billion-dollar year,” Waihee said.

HB 2511 is just one measure that could benefit Hawaiians this session. There are others to direct more funding to the Office of Hawaiian Affairs and a Native Hawaiian advisory group that works with the state on resource management. Lawmakers are also considering proposals to resolve the conflict over astronomy on Mauna Kea.

“For years, the Legislature basically punted on these types of issues,” Waihee said.

Former Governor John Waihee at the 175th anniversary of Washington Place ceremonies.
Former Gov. John Waihee, Hawaii’s first Native Hawaiian governor, said greater awareness of Hawaiian issues helped to spur forward measures this legislative session. Cory Lum/Civil Beat/2022

Though not all of those issues might be resolved this year, Waihee noted that lawmakers are at least more willing to take up those discussions than in years past.

He chalks that up in part to increased funding. The Legislature has about $2 billion more to spend than Ige initially budgeted for.

Waihee said there’s also a broader awareness among lawmakers and the general public of the plight of Native Hawaiian communities, the groundwork for which was laid in the 1970s.

In that decade, Hawaiian-led opposition to the U.S. Navy’s bombardment of Kahoolawe helped to spark what has been called a Hawaiian Renaissance and a reawakening of the indigenous language and culture.

The 1978 Constitutional Convention enshrined the Hawaiian language in the state constitution and created OHA.

The growth of Hawaiian language schools and better access to cultural resources and history also played a factor in this greater understanding of Hawaiian issues. Observers have noted that those factors helped to spark the 2019 protests on Mauna Kea over construction of the Thirty Meter Telescope, and greater political engagement by the Hawaiian community.

Women’s Prison Bills Advance

Among the other bills that won tentative approval Thursday are a measure to provide an additional $1 million for a work furlough program to help prepare women prison inmates for release, and another bill to provide nearly $700,000 for a “Women’s Court” initiative.

Both bills are supported by the Women’s Prison Project, which introduced a dozen measures this year in an effort to overhaul the way the Hawaii correctional system treats women convicts. The Project bills seek to expand community services and reduce the numbers of women who are locked up.

Senate Bill 2637 mandates that the correctional system have a furlough program for women who are making the transition back into their home communities after serving time. It mandates that the furlough system include gender-responsive community-based programs ranging from substance abuse and job training to programs to help single parents to cope.

The three-year women’s court pilot program in Oahu Circuit Court would would use trauma-informed practices and gender-responsive programming to help divert women from prison and jail, and also to try to reduce recidivism.

Womens Community Correctional Center WCCC Hawaii prison razor wire.
A slate of women’s correctional bills won preliminary approval in the Legislature. Cory Lum/Civil Beat/2017

Lawmakers also gave tentative approval Thursday to Senate Bill 2641, a Women’s Prison Project bill to provide funding for residential furlough, mental health and drug treatment programs that will allow children to remain with their mothers while the mothers are in treatment.

Another Women’s Prison Project measure that was approved Thursday would create a new Women’s Corrections Implementation Commission to oversee efforts to divert non-violent women offenders — especially those with children — away from the criminal justice system. Lawmakers have agreed to provide $10,000 for that initiative.

One Women’s Prison Project bill that failed on Thursday was Senate Bill 2777, which would have prohibited male correctional staffers from conducting pat down searches of female inmates or entering areas such as restrooms or showers where female inmates might be undressed, unless an inmate presents a risk of harm to herself or others, or a risk of escape.

The state Department of Public Safety opposed that measure, saying the system has “severe shortages of both female and male adult corrections officers.” The department said it follows federal guidelines on pat downs and searches, and uses post assignments that already limit males officers’ access to restrooms and showers.

There is a particularly dire shortage of female officers in Hawaii facilities, and the bill would also have required that the department increase its recruitment of female adult corrections officers. However, Director Max Otani said in written testimony that “we cannot and do not discriminate based on gender when recruiting and filling correctional officer positions.”

More Pay For Teachers

Lawmakers also gave preliminary approval Thursday to a groundbreaking measure that calls for negotiations between the state and Hawaii State Teachers Association for additional pay for teachers to deal with wage “compression” for senior teachers, and also to provide additional pay for professional development.

House Finance Committee Chairwoman Sylvia Luke said lawmakers included $130 million in the state budget to address those two issues, but it will be up to Gov. David Ige to negotiate an agreement with the union that dictates exactly how that money will be distributed.

Senate Bill 2819 calls for Ige, the Board of Education, the state superintendent and the teachers union to negotiate for a memorandum of agreement “to address compensation equity issues and make the necessary discretionary salary adjustments” for about 8,700 teachers.

Waimea Middle School art teacher Mr Pat Ayat gives a lecture before his students start working on their water color paintings of Kalo.
The Legislature plans to give teachers a big pay boost. Cory Lum/Civil Beat/2022

“They’re so deserving,” said Senate Education Chairwoman Michelle Kidani. The salary compression issue is “one of the reasons we have a teacher shortage, and I’m hoping that this allows the teachers to know that we care about them and we treasure them and we want to make it a livable wage for them.”

Instead of paying teachers based on their years of experience, Hawaii compensates them according to a series of “steps” that are determined by factors including their degrees, their professional development credits, and automatic pay increases. State law also limits the number of classifications, meaning teachers can go no further once they reach Class VII.

That means a highly credentialed but relatively new teacher might make nearly as much as a far more experienced senior teacher. HSTA contends about 8,700 teachers are underpaid based on their years of experience, and that the issue of “compression” has been blamed in part for problems in recruiting teachers.

House Education Committee Chairman Justin Woodson said the bill would adjust the system to put greater weight on years of teaching experience, and the measure would also eliminate the classification ceiling at Class VII.

A first-year, certified teacher’s salary starts at about $50,000 a year. The state budget also includes $32.5 million to continue another teacher pay initiative that offers extra money to teachers in positions that are difficult to fill, including Hawaiian language teachers, special education teachers, and teachers working in some rural areas.

Limit Emergency Powers

Lawmakers also agreed on a measure that seeks to limit the governor’s emergency powers.

Senate Bill 3089 would allow lawmakers to end a governor’s emergency proclamation after an initial 60-day emergency period. The bill would give the House and Senate the ability to strike down an emergency order, in whole or in part, with a two-thirds vote in each chamber.

A previous draft of SB 3089 would have also given that authority to the county councils, but that provision was removed Thursday.

Lawmakers considered limiting the governor’s powers since the last legislative session after the state spent more than a year under an emergency proclamation first issued by Ige in March 2020 in response to the coronavirus pandemic. Those emergency orders have since come to an end.

Lawmakers previously sought to keep the governor and the county mayors from suspending the public records law under an emergency proclamation, but that provision was also removed from SB 3089.

Cap Records Costs

Senate Bill 3172 would require the state’s public boards and commissions to permanently archive video or audio recordings of their meetings on government websites. Livestreams and remote meetings became common in Hawaii during the pandemic.

The bill would also require boards to timestamp their meeting minutes so that the public can skip to pertinent sections of the recordings in the future.

Sen. Karl Rhoads asked Rep. Angus McKelvey if there were any concerns over storage space for the video files that would need to be archived under the bill. Lawmakers raised that concern earlier this session, but McKelvey said storage shouldn’t be a problem.

“Let’s move into the future, shall we?” he said shortly before the conference committee voted to pass SB 3127.

The same committee also advanced Senate Bill 3252, which would cap the cost of public records at 25 cents per page. SB 3252 sets a limit on what government agencies can charge for producing records electronically.

SB 3252 also keeps in place charges for searching for records and reviewing them. Currently, agencies only need to provide a waiver of fees up to $60 for public-interest requests.

However, the bill would exempt requesters from paying fees if a records request is made in the public’s interest and disclosure of those records is “likely to contribute significantly to public understanding of the operations or activities of the government and is not primarily in the commercial interest.”

Period Products

Menstrual products are one step closer to being offered for free in public schools and charter schools. A House-Senate conference committee approved Senate Bill 2821 on Thursday, giving $2 million to the state Department of Education to provide those products to students.

“Period products are school supplies,” said Sarah “Mili” Milianta-Laffin, a STEM lab teacher at Ilima Intermediate School. “Period products allow our students to stay in class and keep learning, and that is educational equity.”

Coming Friday

Many of the 2022 session’s biggest issues have yet to be resolved.

Lawmakers put off discussion on House Bill 2024 until Friday. The measure seeks to restructure the management of Mauna Kea.

HB 2024 went through many changes. The House proposed to transfer the responsibilities of stewarding Mauna Kea to an alternative governing group. Then the Senate put the University of Hawaii back in charge of the summit’s astronomy district while delegating management of lower altitude lands to a separate managing authority.

Left, Senator Chris Lee and Representative/ Chair Henry Aquino hand off documents during conference committee after joint House Senate vote.
Lawmakers are still in negotiations on dozens of measures, which have until Friday to clear conference committees. Cory Lum/Civil Beat/2022

In the latest draft of the bill, the House proposed to remove the university once more. Instead the 11-member panel called the Mauna Kea Stewardship and Oversight Authority would oversee most of the mauna lands. The conference draft calls for a five-year transition period to hand over responsibilities of the land from the university to the new panel.

Minimum wage is again a difficult-to-resolve topic at the Legislature this year. The Senate tried to push for wage increases since 2018, and has taken an aggressive approach this year to raise wages to $12 an hour by Oct. 1, and to $18 an hour by 2026. The Senate’s version of House Bill 2510 also seeks to eliminate the state’s tip credit.

The House has taken a longer timeline, with wages not rising to $18 until 2028. House drafts would keep the tip credit in place.

Lawmakers are said to have reached a compromise on the minimum wage bill, which could be voted on Friday afternoon.

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