"It's no sense to resolve something in favor of native Hawaiians if the result is to polarize 80 percent of the state, and vice versa," said Case, chairman of the House Hawaiian Affairs Committee.
OHA Trustee A. French DeSoto said she has heard comments, too - from native Hawaiians disturbed by the state's efforts to redefine and cut into the OHA entitlement, native Hawaiians growing increasingly disillusioned.
"I'm afraid of the Hawaiian community finally getting ticked off," DeSoto said. "I mean, it's been years and years and years, and by and large the Hawaiian community has no trust in government, believes that they make promises only to break them. There's a lot of rumbling, a lot of unhappy people out there."
The source of the tension is clear: Both the state and OHA have estimated that a court ruling in July, now under appeal, means hundreds of millions of dollars in cash is owed to the agency, and cash is something the state is notably short of.
As lawmakers prepared to convene at the State Capitol today, Case called the emotional subject one of the top issues of the session, an issue that carries a strong potential to polarize the community. His committee plans to start examining it within the larger context of a maturing Hawaiian sovereignty movement, and hopes to begin resolving questions that have lingered for years - all the while balancing it with the state's financial woes.
"It's time to settle it up and get on with life," he said.
How far things will progress is uncertain. A spokesman for Senate Ways and Means Chairs Carol Fukunaga and Lehua Fernandes Salling, for instance, said the money committee did not plan to address the subject until the appeal is complete, a process that by one estimate could take two years. To some, a more immediate solution lies in going to the negotiating table, compromising and reaching a settlement.
"I do feel there's room for negotiation, and I think the administration should sit down with OHA and see if they can reach some kind of agreement," said former state Sen. Donna Ikeda. "We're bankrupt if we have to pay it, pure and simple."
OHA has asked for such talks. Chairman Clayton Hee has called on Gov. Ben Cayetano to convene a summit meeting with leaders of financial institutions and others to seek a solution. OHA legal adviser Jon Van Dyke considers the case "settleable," and said there were some "very preliminary" meetings last year which Cayetano chose not to continue. The governor's office said Cayetano is waiting until a legal challenge to OHA election results is resolved.
What might be put on the table? With no firm cost yet, positions are somewhat vague. (One of the things OHA is suing for is an accounting from the state of all revenues collected from ceded-land use since 1980, when the law entitling the agency to a share was passed.)But not surprisingly, most ideas being floated involve a combination of money and land, similar to a 1993 agreement that resolved other disagreements between the state and OHA. Examples:
Hee suggests the state demand the return of ceded lands not being used by the federal government for strict defense purposes and transfer title to OHA. Among the parcels are the Hickam Air Force Base golf course, the Navy-Marine course by the airport and the Kaneohe Clipper course. Other properties that might be considered are Bellows Air Force Station and Fort DeRussy in Waikiki.
The idea is to transfer income-producing land to the agency and reduce the debt without hurting the state's pocketbook, Hee said.
House Human Services and Housing Chair Dennis Arakaki thinks the state might transfer two Housing Finance and Development Corp. projects on ceded land: the 807-acre Villages of Leiali'i on Maui and the 1,120-acre Villages of La'i'opua on the Big Island.
The state put about $41 million of improvements into them, but development stalled after Judge Daniel Heely blocked the sale of the land. A 51-acre portion of the Maui project already is being transferred to the Hawaiian Home Lands Department to reduce a $600 million settlement reached with the state last year.
Senate Education Co-Chair James Aki, who headed the body's Hawaiian Affairs Committee last session, says the federal government might transfer to OHA the Navy ammunition depot in Waianae. "There are thousands of acres sitting idle," he said. "But these lands could be used for very good community benefits. Hawaiians need housing. Those are good farmlands, too."
Former state Rep. Annelle Amaral suggested combining land transfers with benefits to native Hawaiians, such as tuition waivers at University of Hawaii campuses built on ceded lands, and free health services at community hospitals. That would eliminate any friction over cash, she maintained. "All of us in state government recognize the state is cash-strapped," she said. "All of us are having to make sacrifices."
The transfer of ceded lands, though, may not sit well with some native Hawaiians who feel they were stolen to begin with. William Meheula, president of the Native Hawaiian Bar Association, compared it to someone stealing a car and then giving back the hubcaps as compensation.
"It's kind of like, hey, brah, we own the hubcaps," he said.
Although OHA would prefer to enter into settlement talks, it has prepared strategies for the session. Its main concern is that legislators will try to change the 16-year-old entitlement law, which Cayetano and others have criticized as unclear, even with changes made in 1990. Case said his committee intends to look at ambiguities in the law that led to OHA's lawsuit, and some who passed the original bill say they didn't realize its implications.
"As I recall, most of the projections at that time were on ag land, and those numbers made sense," said D.G. "Andy" Anderson, owner of the John Dominis restaurant and a former senator. "Nobody had the foresight to apply it to other than ag lands."
Ken Kiyabu, who was in the House when the law passed, said the late Kauai Rep. Richard Kawakami once mentioned to him that "down the line this may cause a problem."
"I know there was some concern about what the long-range effect was going to be, but we didn't have any numbers at the time," Kiyabu said.
OHA warns that the issue will be divisive, and there are indications it might be. House Finance Chair Calvin Say, for instance, believes the entitlement law must be changed, and suggested tax increases may be needed to make payments to OHA while meeting prison, welfare and other state expenses. Say put himself in the hot seat last session when he proposed suspending OHA payments for five years.
"I wouldn't do it, put myself in that kind of a situation, if I knew it wasn't going to have major implications with all the other competing interests," he said.
But like others in the community, many lawmakers feel the time is approaching to deal with the entire question of native Hawaiian claims to the ceded lands, and end the turmoil that has surrounded them.
"I look at the big picture and see that as the native Hawaiian people move toward discussion of sovereignty, all these land and resource issues have to be put on the table and not dealt with in isolation," Arakaki said.
"Once we're willing to do that, we can come to a better process for compromise. Otherwise, everything's adversarial."