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The Honolulu Advertiser
Posted on: Wednesday, February 24, 2010

Put Akaka bill back on track, or it will die

Congressional backers of federal recognition for Native Hawaiians are making a serious tactical error by proceeding with the latest version of the bill moving on Capitol Hill.

There are differences between the Senate bill and the one that passed the House yesterday, but both contain a poison pill that has cost the support of the state's top officials.

The problem is a provision that establishes Native Hawaiian governmental powers up front, before negotiations with the state can even begin.

The measure now threatens to splinter a fragile coalition of people who until now have supported the so-called Akaka bill, in part because it was carefully crafted to ensure a level of state oversight in the transition to self governance.

That coalition was led by Gov. Linda Lingle, who has now withdrawn her support because of provisions that a new Native Hawaiian government would have sovereign immunity and civil and criminal jurisdiction over their people on their lands.

U.S. Sen. Daniel Akaka's position is that this provision mirrors the status given to America's other indigenous people, which is something the Obama administration believes puts it on stronger legal footing.

Akaka contends that would have little practical effect until land is conveyed to the new native government. That conveyance will take negotiations, during which the state can put limits on sovereign powers.

That has not reassured Lingle, who believes separate rules will never work in a state where native and non-native people are so inextricably mingled.

She's right to find this change disconcerting. But whether or not everyone echoes her concern, the unease of the governor is no small thing in the real world of Hawai'i, where there is already suspicion and alarm about what the presence of a sovereign government entity could mean for non-Hawaiians.

Regardless of the partisan changes in Congress and the White House, the bill still faces an uphill battle to win Senate approval, something that's never happened in the decade since Akaka introduced the legislation. Some of the fence-sitters in the Senate and there are many would see the governor's rejection as a deal breaker and would get off the fence on the opposition side.

Akaka should not assume too much goodwill toward his signature legislation, not in Congress and not at home. The schism with the governor is certain to give opponents an opening to rally more stridently against the bill, and they could persuade others to join them.

The senator needs to amend the bill, returning the earlier language that mandated that the power of the new government be negotiated up front. Otherwise, Akaka may squander the last opportunity to enact Native Hawaiian recognition as a "nation within a nation," one that can comfortably coexist with the rest of the Aloha State.