Akaka bill could face revision, Norton says
By Vicki Viotti
Advertiser Staff Writer
U.S. Interior Secretary Gale Norton said yesterday that her staff is reviewing the bill that would give Hawaiians federal recognition in hopes that revisions might avert some of the legal conflicts and other "pitfalls" faced by Native American nations.
Norton, taking media questions following remarks to the American Farm Bureau Federation convention in Honolulu, acknowledged that the so-called Akaka bill is the subject of discussions involving Hawai'i's congressional delegation and officials of the U.S. Interior and Justice departments.
The latest form of the bill, sponsored by Sen. Daniel Akaka, D-Hawai'i, and known also by the label "S. 344," has passed through the Indian Affairs Committee but has stalled en route to a vote by the full Senate.
A week ago, the delegation, in Honolulu for the holiday break, met with Gov. Linda Lingle, Attorney General Mark Bennett and trustees of the Office of Hawaiian Affairs for a status report on the bill.
Akaka was not available for comment last week, but U.S. Rep. Ed Case, D-Hawai'i, said "issues are being hashed out" in the effort to get the administration on board.
"The goal is to obtain concurrence on 344, to consider any proposed changes by the administration," he said. "The intention is to pass S. 344 through Congress as it was passed out of committee. It may or may not turn out to be that way."
Paul Cardus, a spokesman for Akaka, said no specific amendments have been hammered out yet.
Some OHA members expressed worry over what the possible changes might include.
Trustee Rowena Akana said OHA, which has been lobbying for passage of the bill, should get on record via a state resolution as supporting the legislation as written.
Akana said her chief concern is that the revised bill could end up restricting membership in a Hawaiian nation in some way, but Case said no such curtailment is evident.
Yesterday, Norton acknowledged that the administration has had concerns about the constitutionality of the bill, but she said her department's focus has been on passing on lessons learned from experience with Native American tribes.
"My concern is a practical one," she said. "We deal with our Native American tribes. What we would like to do is help Hawaiians avoid pitfalls that we have seen.
"I think it's important for everyone to think through how they want the system to operate when they establish it."
For example, she said, the bill needs to clarify specific relationships between the state and the Native Hawaiian governing entity.
She said some tribes have run into conflict over land use when there are overlapping tribal and local regulations. Other conflicts have arisen over taxation questions and over whether crimes should be adjudicated by the native entity or the state jurisdiction.
Norton, who also yesterday presided over the presentation of honors to volunteers at the Arizona Memorial, spoke to the convention about the need for endangered species legislation that promotes cooperative solutions over litigation.
Reach Vicki Viotti at email@example.com or 525-8053.