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The Honolulu Advertiser
Posted on: Tuesday, February 23, 2010

U.S. House may vote today on Akaka bill


By Derrick DePledge
Advertiser Government Writer

AKAKA BILL

The U.S. House is poised to vote on a new version of a Native Hawaiian federal recognition bill. Read the bill at http://akaka.senate.gov/upload/Feb-22-2010-NHGRA-final.pdf.

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The U.S. House could vote today on a new version of the Akaka bill, after Hawai'i's congressional delegation opted to move forward without the support of Gov. Linda Lingle.

The Native Hawaiian federal recognition bill would give Hawaiians the right to form their own government, similar to American Indians and Native Alaskans, and negotiate with the state and federal governments over land use and cultural preservation.

Hawaiians would have the inherent power to govern prior to any negotiations, not after, and any new noncommercial government activities, services and programs run by Hawaiians would not be subject to state or county regulation.

The Obama administration insisted that Hawaiians have inherent power so they would be treated similarly to American Indians and Native Alaskans, but Lingle and state Attorney General Mark Bennett object because it would essentially create two sets of rules for Hawaiians and other state residents.

"These clarifications represent a genuine effort to address the state's concerns while maintaining the original purpose of the bill: federal recognition for Native Hawaiians," U.S. Sen. Daniel Akaka, D-Hawai'i, the bill's main sponsor, said in a statement. "It is critically important that we continue to provide Native Hawaiians parity in federal policies enacted for our nation's indigenous people. This bill provides Native Hawaiians with an opportunity for self-determination and cultural preservation, while empowering them to be an equal partner with the state and federal government.

"More than 50 years after statehood, it is time we act to bring about meaningful reconciliation and healing."

'HEAVY HEART'

Akaka spoke yesterday with Lingle, who is in Washington, D.C., for the winter meeting of the National Governors Association, but they could not resolve their differences.

Lingle, in a statement, said her opposition comes with a "heavy heart," because she has backed federal recognition for a decade.

"I do not believe such a structure, of two completely different sets of rules one for 'governmental' activities of the Native Hawaiian governing entity and its officers and employees, and one for everyone else makes sense for Hawai'i," she said.

Bennett said the state considered softening its opposition to the inherent power language, but could not agree to give up its authority to regulate health, public safety, welfare and the environment.

While the new Hawaiian government would not control any land until after negotiations with the state and federal governments, Bennett said, it could function as a government and launch a range of noncommercial activities without any state or county oversight.

Bennett called the new version "a formula for strife and litigation, not for negotiation and reconciliation."

U.S. Rep. Neil Abercrombie, D-Hawai'i, is expected to amend the bill on the House floor today to substitute language in the new version.

NO GAMBLING

The new version would not make Hawaiians an Indian tribe like a previous draft the state opposed and, like earlier drafts, prohibits a new Hawaiian government from conducting gambling either in Hawai'i or on the Mainland.

House Republicans are expected to offer amendments: one to require that Hawai'i voters approve the new Hawaiian government before federal recognition becomes operative; and another stating that a new Hawaiian government would have to comply with the equal protection clause in the 14th Amendment of the U.S. Constitution.

House Democrats, who have a majority, will likely reject the Republican proposals and pass the bill with Abercrombie's changes.

The House has twice passed versions of the Akaka bill since it was introduced in 2000, but the delegation has been unable to steer it through the U.S. Senate, where Republicans have used procedural tools to block it from advancing.

Bennett said the Lingle administration would likely try to amend the bill in the Senate. Even with Lingle's strong support in the past, when the Republican governor personally lobbied Republican senators and President George W. Bush, the delegation has not been able to overcome GOP opposition.

With the January special-election victory by U.S. Sen. Scott Brown, R-Mass., Democrats lost the ability to control the 60 votes necessary to break Republican filibusters and now have 59 votes. However, at least one Republican, U.S. Sen. Lisa Murkowski, R-Alaska, has supported the Akaka bill, so there is a chance the bill might move.

TIME IS RIGHT

Akaka and others in the delegation have been optimistic the bill could pass this year and go to President Obama, who has said he would sign it into law. The Senate's makeup could change significantly after the November elections due to the number of open and competitive seats, so Hawai'i lawmakers want to act quickly.

"We have worked for more than a decade on this piece of legislation and I would like to take a moment to thank Gov. Lingle and Attorney General Mark Bennett for working with our staff in such a timely manner," U.S. Sen. Daniel K. Inouye, D-Hawai'i, said in a statement. "We made significant modifications to this bill at the request of the state and I believe that it is stronger because of it. Although meaningful changes were made to address the governor's concerns, there remain issues that we could not resolve.

"Today is a new day. We have a new administration, and this bill represents a new compromise in our goal of achieving self-determination for Native Hawaiians."