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‘Banner Year’: State Legislature Approves More Than $1B For Native Hawaiian Programs

By Nathan Christophel
May 5, 2022, 5:00 PM HST
* Updated May 5, 4:50 PM
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The 2022 state legislative session wrapped up Thursday, May 5, but not before lawmakers infused more than $1 billion into projects and initiatives that will benefit Native Hawaiians.

“It appears to have been a banner year for funding for Native Hawaiian programs,” Aunty Noe Noe Wong-Wilson, a Native Hawaiian, community advocate and member of the ‘Aina Aloha Economic Futures initiative from the Big Island, told Big Island Now and Kaua‘i Now on Thursday.

The funding approved by the Legislature includes $600 million for the Department of Hawaiian Home Lands to develop a multi-pronged approach to eliminating its waitlist. According to state Rep. David Tarnas, who represents North and South Kohala and North Kona, House Bill 2511 will also help DHHL build more homes, buy more land and provide rental and mortgage assistance to Native Hawaiians on the waitlist.

“This historic infusion of funding to the department comes at a critical time, as we humbly recognize the centennial year of the Hawaiian Homes Commission Act,” said Hawaiian Homes Commission Chairman William Ailā Jr. in a press release. “For the entirety of the program, the department has persevered along underfunded, struggling to act on the fulfillment of Prince Kūhiō’s vision from a century ago. As we look towards the next hundred years, it was critical that the state acknowledge its responsibility to the beneficiaries of the Hawaiian Homes Commission Act and its implementation.”

Ailā said in the release that the Legislature’s commitment demonstrates lawmakers heard DHHL’s call for funding to return Native Hawaiians to the land. He commended the Legislature for its “bold decision-making to act on this great need.”

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“With over 28,000 Native Hawaiians awaiting a homestead lot, the work only begins here,” he said in the release. “We look forward to the future with anticipation that the need for funding continues to be prioritized and that the voices that stand with us today continue to be bold tomorrow. The department is ready to dig into its shovel-ready projects and will continue its path of innovative and diversified lot options.”

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Gov. David Ige, in response to a question during a press conference regarding the end of the legislative session about whether he’d like to see the same level of funding for DHHL continue for the next few years, said there have been discussions about how to fund the department moving forward, especially now that the state’s financial condition has changed.

The Department of Hawaiian Home Lands on Saturday, April 30, hosted its first in-person lot selection meeting since 2019, and residents of Anahola, Kaua‘i, were the beneficiaries. (Photo courtesy of the Department of Hawaiian Home Lands)

“We were looking at different ways to provide more sustained support for the Hawaiian Homestead programs,” said Ige, adding that he has had some discussion about possibly using transient accommodations tax revenues for the program.

“Which I think would provide longer term, more sustained funding for the organization,” the governor said.

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He said the Hawaiian Homelands program was built more than 100 years ago on the notion that revenues from sugar leases could be used to fund homesteading programs, but with sugar plantations no longer operating in the islands, he said a more sustainable funding mechanism is needed.

“I do think we need to find a more dedicated, longer term source of funding for the organization so that they can meet the waitlist requirements,” Ige said.

How much TAT revenue that would entail is something that would need to be ironed out. The governor said 10% would be a good starting point, initially generating between $60 million and $80 million, with projections of growth to more than $100 million per year moving forward.

“I do think that those kinds of numbers are what would need to be committed in the long term to really make sure we can deliver on the obligation that we accepted at statehood to provide a homesteading program for Native Hawaiians,” Ige said.

In another move to address the waitlist, lawmakers approved Senate Bill 3041, which appropriates more than $335 million to settle a class action lawsuit — the Kalima vs. DHHL case — brought by Native Hawaiians who sued the state for the time they spent waiting to get a parcel on Hawaiian Home Lands.

“Paying for the settlement in a class action suit of Native Hawaiians for the time they spent on the waitlist is providing a fair and just resolution to these residents,” Tarnas told Big Island Now and Kaua‘i Now in an email.

Senate Bill 2021 appropriates $64 million to the Office of Hawaiian Affairs for a portion of the income and proceeds from the public land trust. Tarnas said lawmakers also increased the annual payments of public land revenues to OHA to $21.5 million and established a working group with OHA and the governor to reach an agreement on the future amount of land revenues the office should receive.

“Increasing the annual payments of public land revenues to OHA will support the many programs they provide to Native Hawaiians in our community,” he said.

Lawmakers also approved funding in the next state budget that will go toward Native Hawaiian initiatives and projects:

  • $38 million to address staff recruitment and training and provide Hawaiian language immersion for students in the state Department of Education schools, including classroom renovations.$10 million for planning and development for Hawaiian Homesteads.
  • $10 million for capital improvements to Bishop Museum.
  • $7.5 million to support programming and operations of the Bishop Museum.
  • $2,889,496 and 14 positions for the ‘Imiloa immersion program at the University of Hawai‘i at Hilo.
  • $400,000 in additional funding for operating expenses at the Kaho‘olawe Island Reserve.
  • $200,000 for the Aha Moku Advisory Committee.
  • $117,019 for Papahana ‘o Kaiona alternative learning program.

Wong-Wilson, who closely followed the funding measures associated with the DHHL and OHA this session, would have liked to see more money go to OHA, but said the settlement that was reached in the Kalima case was remarkable.

She realizes legislators have to weigh everything when it comes to making funding decisions.

“This was a banner surplus year, so it allowed them to choose their priorities and that’s what it shows,” Wong-Wilson said.

Another funding measure — and an issue followed closely by Wong-Wilson and other Native Hawaiians — deals specifically with the startup and transition costs for a new Maunakea stewardship and oversight authority. House Bill 2024 appropriates $14 million for the new authority and $350,000 for K-12 public education programs in astronomy-related fields of learning.

Maunakea (Photo from Wikimedia Commons)

Wong-Wilson called the Maunakea management bill a “really great thing.”

“It isn’t everything that we had hoped for, if you compare it to the working group draft and especially House Draft 1,” she said. “Nevertheless, I think the Legislature was able to come up with a bill that is forward looking and a great first step.”

Wong-Wilson said there’s a lot of work yet to do when it comes to the stewardship of Maunakea and the new authority will be a big change for all the parties involved.

“But the most important thing is that the protection and care of Maunakea is central to the purpose of the authority,” she said. “That’s what we wanted.”

“Establishing an alternative management framework for Maunakea will include Native Hawaiians in the management decisions for Maunakea and provide support for astronomy that is consistent with a mutual stewardship paradigm in which ecology, the environment, natural resources, cultural practices, education and science are in balance and synergy,” Tarnas said.

Ige said during his press conference Thursday that he will be looking at the Maunakea management bill.

“I do support the notion of mutual stewardship, which I think the House and Senate conferees captured quite well,” the governor said, responding to a question from the press. “We do know that there are very, very specific requirements when it comes to land management, so we’ll be looking at the bill and making a final assessment in the next 45 days.”

Other bills passed by the Legislature this session that benefit Native Hawaiians include:

  • HB 1894: Allows the use of traditional Native Hawaiian burial practices and environmentally friendly burial practices by including water cremation in the treatment and disposal of human remains.
  • HB 1768: Exempts traditional and customary kalo cultivation practices from the existing process for disposition of water rights.
  • HB 2466: Taro cultivation tax exemption.
  • HR 130: Apologizing to the Native Hawaiian people for the prohibition in Hawai’i schools of the instructional use of the Hawaiian language from 1896-1986.
  • SCR 121: Urging the counties and state to work with Huamakahikina and kumu hula to establish policies protecting hula.

State House Floor Leader Rep. Daynette Morikawa, who represents Ni‘ihau and Lehua, Kōloa and Waimea on Kaua‘i, told Big Island Now and Kaua‘i Now in an email that taking care of the state’s obligation to the Native Hawaiian people was the most satisfying accomplishment of this year’s session.

“In all my 12 years at the Legislature, this year has been the most significant and historical because of the tremendous increase of revenues,” said Morikawa.

“We are on the precipice of celebrating the most consequential legislative session in 100 years,” state Sen. Jarrett Keohokalole, a co-chairman of the Native Hawaiian Legislative Caucus, in a press release. “Regardless of what community or island you represent, the issues that we were able to address this session truly impact us all. This is a great starting point for addressing many issues faced by our state and sets the stage for what we need to address going forward.”

Gov. David Ige speaks during a press conference regarding the end of the 2022 state legislative session Thursday, May 5. (Screenshot from video.)

The caucus’ priorities during the 2022 session included addressing the DHHL waitlist, settling the Kalima case and planning the new Maunakea authority.

“We aimed to do the best that we could to keep these issues in the forefront as we moved through this year’s session,” state Rep. Daniel Holt, the other co-chairman of the Native Hawaiian Legislative Caucus, said in the release. “It was truly a collective experience between community advocates and legislators, and we encourage people to keep engaging with this process so that all of our voices are heard in the years to come.”

During a press conference with the Native Hawaiian Legislative Caucus on Wednesday, May 4, state House Speaker Rep. Scott Saiki said he views the 2022 legislative session as a breakthrough.

“It was a breakthrough because the Legislature envisioned the possible — and implemented it,” Saiki told lawmakers in his closing day speech Thursday. “In the process, you were unafraid to take on the most complicated and controversial issues. This is exactly how a Legislature should operate. As a result of your work, hundreds of thousands of people will have opportunity and a better chance in our state.”

Gov. David Ige lauded the work of legislators this year during his press conference Thursday.

“I think this has been a good session,” Ige said. “I think the Legislature has responded to the needs of the community and they put together a pretty good package that impacts a lot in our community, and especially those most in need.”

The governor said the more than $1 billion committed to Native Hawaiian issues will allow the state to really begin to fulfill the commitment of the Hawaiian Homesteads program as well as meet the financial needs of OHA.

“We had an opportunity this session after two really, really difficult years of having to deal with billion-dollar deficits and considering layoffs and furloughs,” Ige said. “This was first session where the financial condition of state was supportive of restoring cuts and really moving forward on various initiatives.”

The work is never done, however. Wong-Wilson said there’s more to do for the Native Hawaiian community and it will take a stronger voice in government to get the work done. The only way to do that is by participating.

This year is an election year and an unusual one, she said, in that all of the state House and Senate seats and the lieutenant governor and governor positions are on the ballot.

“So it’s really important to get the right people with the right mindset in office, and the only way we can do that is to get out and vote,” Wong-Wilson said, adding she’s hopeful that Native Hawaiians will take that to heart and get out to help elect people this year who will represent them. “That’s huge.”

Nathan Christophel
Nathan Christophel has more than 20 years of experience in journalism, starting out as a reporter and working his way up to become a copy editor and page designer, most recently at the Hawaii Tribune-Herald in Hilo.
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