The Office of Hawaiian Affairs is poised to get more money generated by the use of lands once held by the Hawaiian Kingdom.

Right now, state agencies that use those lands are required to transfer an aggregate $15.1 million to OHA each year. Lawmakers set that amount in 2006 and have not raised it since.

The office asked lawmakers for several years to raise that cap to a higher amount. OHA uses those funds for grant programs, but measures that would raise the cap have died in past years.

A measure this year could make it further. On Monday, the House Finance Committee voted unanimously to advance a bill that would raise the cap to $21.5 million. Senate Bill 2021 also would require a six-member working group appointed by the governor and OHA to recommend a new amount to the Legislature every year.

OHA Office of Hawaiian Affairs sign. Photograph made thru the glass entrance area.
The Office of Hawaiian Affairs could soon get a greater share of Hawaii’s public land revenues. Cory Lum/Civil Beat/2022

The bill would also give OHA access to about $31 million in a holding account that neither the state nor OHA has been able to spend.

OHA Board of Trustees Chair Carmen Hulu Lindsey said in a written statement that OHA is pleased with the amendments.

“Today’s decision is definitely a good start towards reconciliation of long held disagreements about the Public Land Trust,” Lindsey said in the statement. “We appreciate these legislative efforts to address PLT issues in a pono manner.”

Ceded lands are former government and crown lands from the Hawaiian Kingdom. Those 1.8 million acres of land in Hawaii were transferred to the U.S. after the overthrow. The lands were transferred again when Hawaii became a state in 1959.

The Legislature has debated the issue several times in the last five decades. OHA’s share of revenues has been the subject of at least three rulings by the Hawaii Supreme Court.

Each time, the justices said it’s up to the Legislature to determine OHA’s share of the land revenues. In the 1980s, lawmakers set the OHA’s share at 20% of gross revenues from public lands.

The Senate’s latest draft of SB 2021 would change the law to instead allocate 20% of net revenues from those lands. OHA asked the House to remove that provision. The office said in written testimony that provision could “reduce OHA’s share to virtually nothing.”

Naʻunanikinaʻu Kamaliʻi, OHA’s chief advocate, told lawmakers during the hearing on Monday that the office could be worse off if that provision advanced.

“It changes what has historically been in place for over 40 years,” she said of the provision.

House Finance Chairwoman Sylvia Luke removed it from the latest draft of the bill.

Earlier this session, OHA approached lawmakers with its largest-ever request for ceded land payments. The office asked that the cap be raised to $78.9 million. OHA also requested $638 million in back payments from the state.

A report from OHA on land revenues in 2016 found that state agencies did not report more than $200 million in ceded land revenue. Still, the state Department of Budget and Finance questioned the accuracy of OHA’s back payment estimate.

OHA’s bill asking for those amounts, Senate Bill 2122, died in the Senate in February.

Luke said during the hearing on Monday that the working group should also discuss any back payment amounts owed to OHA since its last settlement with the state. That happened in 2012, when former Gov. Neil Abercrombie struck a deal that transferred land along the Kakaako waterfront to OHA.

The deal was worth about $200 million at the time, but OHA has not yet been able to make full use of those lands after lawmakers blocked plans for development.

Rep. Amy Perusso also raised another outstanding issue with OHA’s payments. She said that an investigation of the Agribusiness Development Corp. by House lawmakers found that the ADC as not transferred any money to OHA since it was created 30 years ago.

Luke said that the working group would examine that issue as well.

SB 2021 will face a vote by the full 51-member House sometime next week. After that, the Senate could agree to the House’s changes and send the bill to Gov. David Ige for his consideration.

If the Senate objects to the House amendments, the bill will go to conference committee, where negotiators from the House and Senate meet to hash out their differences on measures.

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