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The Honolulu Advertiser
Posted on: Friday, February 15, 2008

Ceded land bill clears two hurdles

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By Gordon Y.K. Pang
Advertiser Staff Writer

"Hopefully, the Office of Hawaiian Affairs can get community discussions where they can gain a greater appreciation for the views of the native people as opposed to the Office of the Attorney General."

SEN. CLAYTON HEE | D-23rd, Water and Land Committee chairman

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Two key state Senate committees yesterday advanced a plan to settle a dispute over ceded land revenues that would have the state give $200 million in land and cash to the Office of Hawaiian Affairs.

But it remained clear that the plan, or some version of a settlement, is still an iffy proposition at the state Capitol, where lawmakers must sign off on any settlement.

The Senate Agriculture and Hawaiian Affairs Committee and the Water and Land Committee voted unanimously to approve Senate Bill 2733. The Senate Judiciary Committee also approved the same bill on Wednesday.

The measure now goes before the full Senate for another vote before moving to the Senate Ways and Means Committee.

Three of the five votes in the Hawaiian Affairs committee, however, were cast with reservations. A sixth member of the Hawaiian Affairs committee who was not present for the meeting said he would have voted against the bill.

"I think the vote really reflects how difficult this issue is and how conflicted many of us feel," said Agriculture and Hawaiian Affairs Chairwoman Jill Tokuda, D-24th (Kailua, Kane'ohe). "I voted without reservations, but ... by moving this bill forward, it in no way means that the bill is complete or satisfactory. There's still a lot of work to be done."

The measure calls for three large parcels of land to be transferred by the state along with $13 million cash. The lands are in Kaka'ako and Kalaeloa on O'ahu, and in Hilo on the Big Island. Additionally, the state would give OHA an annual payment of $15 million for revenues derived from ceded lands the same amount that has been paid annually for the last several years.

The three committee votes came after a public hearing on the bill last Saturday that lasted more than five hours and had more than 200 people offer spoken or written testimony. Tokuda estimated that slightly more of the spoken testimony was in favor of the bill, while slightly more of the written testimony was against it.

Senators yesterday urged OHA to gather as much as input as possible from the public on the proposal. OHA and other Hawaiian groups began a statewide series of such meetings on Monday.

Water and Land Committee Chairman Clayton Hee, D-23rd (Kane'ohe, Kahuku), who was among those who voted with reservations yesterday, said he believes the proposal reflects too much the wishes of state Attorney General Mark Bennett rather than those of Native Hawaiians.

"Hopefully, the Office of Hawaiian Affairs can get community discussions where they can gain a greater appreciation for the views of the native people as opposed to the Office of the Attorney General," said Hee, a former OHA member.

Sen. Sam Slom, R-8th (Kahala, Hawai'i Kai), said he was voting with "the strongest of ultra-extremist reservations" adding that he was asked to vote in favor of the bill "to keep the dialogue going."

Slom, a critic of OHA, said he found it most disconcerting that "too many were not invited to the table (and) were not taken into consideration."

Sen. J. Kalani English, D-6th (E. Maui, Moloka'i, Lana'i), who is on Tokuda's committee but was not present for the ceded lands bill vote because he was at another committee meeting, said he probably would have voted against the bill. English said neither the amount of lands nor the annual payment is enough to settle the ills the agreement is supposed to rectify.

"As a legislator, looking at it from a state perspective, for the state this is a very good deal," English said. "But when I put on my Native Hawaiian hat, I don't feel that this does justice to this issue for the time period because there has been immense suffering (on the part of Hawaiians) during that time, there's been immense hardship during that time."

English and Hee are the only senators of Hawaiian ancestry.

The House Democratic leadership has yet to hold a hearing on the bill. A hearing originally scheduled for earlier this month was later canceled. House leaders, however, appeared to be a little more receptive to the bill yesterday than their Senate counterparts.

House Majority Leader Kirk Caldwell, D-24th (Manoa), said "the general consensus is (the terms of the bill) appear to be fair and reasonable."

That said, however, House Democrats were told to go back and listen to what constituents had to say. House members are also waiting to see how the Senate proceedings and OHA hearings go.

House Speaker Calvin Say, D-20th (St. Louis Hts., Palolo, Wilhelmina Rise), said that he agrees in principle with most of the major terms of the settlement, including the three parcels. But like Hee and English, Say said he wants to amend the annual payment to reflect a non-fixed amount tied to some sort of inflationary index.

He said he also wants to take a closer look at the language of the bill, some of which he views as problematic.

Reach Gordon Y.K. Pang at gpang@honoluluadvertiser.com.

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