Tuesday, February 5, 2002

Legislature 2002

Senate measure takes
aim at OHA

The bill would ask voters to amend the
Constitution to create a trust for Hawaiians

By Pat Omandam

Hawaii voters would be asked to ratify an amendment to the state Constitution to abolish the 22-year-old Office of Hawaiian Affairs in favor of a private not-for-profit trust, under a Senate bill being heard today at the state Capitol.

The measure, which tops the list of Hawaiian bills set for a hearing this afternoon before the Senate Hawaiian Affairs Committee, transfers all of OHA's monetary and physical assets, including its $300 million native trust, to a special Circuit Court master until a new Hawaiian autonomy trust is created.

The bill would benefit every one in the state because it would take a much beleaguered state agency out of state government completely while it would preserve OHA's existing assets for use by Hawaiians, said Sen. Fred Hemmings (R, Waimanalo), author of the measure.

Hemmings envisions a trust much like the great alii trusts of today -- Campbell Estate, Kamehameha Schools and the Queen's Medical Center. The corporation would be operated by trustees who are elected by state residents of Hawaiian ancestry.

"I think most Hawaiians know that they're not getting what they deserve out of OHA, and they would like OHA depoliticized," Hemmings said yesterday.

"The facts are, the Akaka bill is stalled in Congress, and it doesn't look like there's any relief forthcoming. The facts are that Hawaiian programs that used taxpayers dollars are under assault by legal challenges, and they're losing. And there doesn't seem to be any relief in sight," he said.

A February 2000 ruling by the U.S. Supreme Court opened OHA elections to non-Hawaiian voters. A subsequent court ruling allowed non-Hawaiians to also run for the OHA board of trustees, while a state attorney general's opinion last September has barred OHA from awarding any grants because it does not have the legal authority to do so.

Currently, OHA is awaiting a ruling by a state Circuit Court on whether the state can sell ceded lands.

Nevertheless, OHA Vice Chairwoman Rowena Akana responded that Hemmings' bill creates a big gap in services to Hawaiians because there is no process to replace it. Moreover, she said, transferring all of OHA's assets -- even temporarily -- to a court-appointed special master puts money dedicated toward helping Hawaiians at risk.

Philosophically, it is a good idea to separate OHA from the state, but she said this bill is not the way to do it.

"It's a bill that is sorely lacking, and of course, I don't support it," said Akana, who is also OHA's legislative committee chairwoman.

Senate Hawaiian Affairs Chairman Jonathan Chun (D, South Kauai-Niihau) said he allowed the Hawaiian autonomy trust bill to be heard at the request of Hemmings, who is a member of his committee. But Chun said he has serious doubts about the proposal because of the legal issues it raises.

Chun expects the bill to get the attention of the Hawaiian community.

Meanwhile, state legislators may balk at taking such a major action such as abolishing OHA -- which was created during the 1978 state Constitutional Convention -- during an election year. But Hemmings disagreed.

"I think the smart thing for people to do in an election year is get behind a bill like this so that the Hawaiian community ... gets something. Maybe if it was a private trust, they would get a lot of more," he said.

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