Governor pressing U.S. Senate to reject Akaka bill
By Gordon Y.K. Pang
Advertiser Staff Writer
Gov. Linda Lingle is stepping up her campaign against the current version of the Akaka bill, writing letters to all U.S. senators urging them to reject the measure.
Lingle was a staunch supporter of earlier forms of the Akaka bill, which would establish a process to create a federally recognized government entity representing the interests of Native Hawaiians. But yesterday she said the language in the latest draft "inevitably sets the Native Hawaiian governing entity and the state of Hawai'i on a jurisdictional collision course."
Two senators unlikely to be swayed by Lingle's letters are Hawai'i's Daniel Akaka and Daniel K. Inouye, the sponsors of the bill formally known as the Native Hawaiian Government Reorganization Act.
Akaka spokesman Jesse Broder Van Dyke said yesterday that Lingle's concerns are specious and that the latest draft is crafted with language similar to that used to establish federal recognition of American Indian tribes.
"We do think the hypotheticals she presented are somewhat unrealistic," he said.
The Akaka bill passed the House in February. It has not yet been scheduled for a vote on the Senate floor, although Akaka, the bill's lead sponsor, is hoping that will happen this year.
Lingle said she felt compelled to send a letter to each senator because she had previously written to them asking them to support the Akaka bill.
In her letter sent this week, Lingle said she continues to back federal recognition for Native Hawaiians similar to federal recognition for American Indians and Alaska Natives because it is "the just and right thing to do."
Her main concern is that the latest draft of the bill allows the Native Hawaiian governing entity "to be sovereign from the start, and grants to that entity broad and ill-defined powers, subject to further definition in negotiations."
Lingle said the new version allows the governing entity and its leaders "to conduct activities anywhere in Hawai'i ... in a way that is inconsistent with state criminal statutes otherwise applicable to all citizens, and inconsistent with virtually every conceivable state law that serves to protect the public."
That immunity would extend to employees of the governing entity as it pertains to a variety of laws, from fire and building codes to food and drug regulations, she said.
While the Republican governor and the all-Democratic Hawai'i congressional delegation have been working to iron out the state's concerns, the gap between the parties "is substantial," Lingle said in her letter. "It is fair to say that these negotiations have reached an impasse."
A statement from Akaka noted that more than 500 native governments are recognized by the United States, and all have sovereign immunity, as do all 50 states.
"I am confident the state of Hawai'i's interests are protected. Sovereign immunity preserves the status quo in the United States' policy towards its indigenous people," Akaka said.
Inouye said in a statement that there was substantial discussion among the congressional delegation, state Attorney General Mark Bennett and the Obama administration over the governor's concerns, and that many changes requested by Lingle were accepted.
The senator indicated the delegation is ready to move on without Lingle's support.
"With the Obama White House, we have the opportunity at long last to provide for a meaningful process of self-determination for Native Hawaiians in a manner akin to the other indigenous people of this land," he said in the statement.
A statement from the Office of Hawaiian Affairs, which supports the bill's latest draft, took a similar tone.
"We know that differences of opinion are not uncommon as landmark legislation, such as this, enters the final stages of consideration," the OHA statement said. "We appreciate how, despite these differences, all support the concept of fulfilling our dream of self-determination and a process of recognition for Native Hawaiians."
The latest draft was approved by the House by a 254-164 vote. It was the third time the Akaka bill has passed the House in the past decade.
It has never made it out of the Senate.