Wednesday, February 4, 2009

Ceded lands bills moving forward


With oral arguments in a U.S. Supreme Court case just weeks away, committees in both houses of the Legislature advanced bills today reining in the state administration’s ability to sell ceded lands.

The alii (chiefs) of the Royal Order of King Kamehameha I, wearing their trademark red and yellow capes, dominated the front row of committee rooms and were among the dozens who testified in support of a moratorium on the sale of Ceded lands.

Ceded lands are lands once owned by the Hawaiian monarchy but ceded to the state to be held in trust for Hawaiians. Ceded lands comprise 1.2 million acres of land on all Hawaiian islands - about 29 percent of the total land mass of the state and more than 90 percent of state-owned lands.

Eight bills were being heard in their first committees today, ranging from an outright ban of the sale of the lands (HB 1667, HB 1805, HB 1841, HB 902, SB 1085, SB 475) to the requirement that the Legislature approve each deal by a two-thirds majority (SB 1677, SB 476).

All of the House bills moved forward unanimously, with HB 1805 further modified to include the two-thirds requirement favored by the Senate.

At most immediate issue is the Lingle administration’s appeal to the U.S. Supreme Court of a Hawaii Supreme Court opinion that placed a moratorium on the state selling ceded lands until an agreement could be worked out between the state and the Native Hawaiian people. That case is scheduled to be heard in Washington D.C. on Feb. 25.

Attorney General Mark Bennett, one of the few opponents testifying about the bills, said passing legislation now is wrong from both a legal and a political perspective.

“The bill raises the potential for additional federal court lawsuits against the state by persons oppose3d to government programs that provide benefits to Native Hawaiians,” Bennett said. “We also believe that it makes sense as a policy matter for the state to retain flexibility as to the use and management of its land.”

Clyde Namuo, administrator for the Office of Hawaiian Affairs, which is battling the state administration in the lawsuit, said he and Bennett have worked side-by-side preserving Native Hawaiian rights in the past. But now, he said, he’s reaching a new understanding.

“Eight years ago when I joined OHA, I wondered why Native Hawaiians seemed so angry,” Namuo said. “Listening today to this discussion, I finally get it.”