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Lingle fights Akaka Bill changes


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POSTED: Wednesday, December 16, 2009

Gov. Linda Lingle strongly opposes proposed changes to legislation in Congress that would grant federal recognition to native Hawaiians, state Attorney General Mark Bennett said yesterday.

In a letter to the ranking Republican on the House Natural Resources Committee, Bennett said he and Lingle have long supported the so-called Akaka Bill, named after U.S. Sen. Daniel Akaka, the measure's chief sponsor.

But he said changes proposed by U.S. Rep. Neil Abercrombie to the House version of the bill would unacceptably alter the relationships between federal and state governments and the native Hawaiian governing entity the measure would create.

“;This creates a whole set of unknowns,”; Bennett said in an interview yesterday. “;We welcome an opportunity to have a discussion (about) the changes and the impact, but were never afforded that.”;

Lingle spokesman Russell Pang referred all questions to Bennett.

The natural resources panel is due to vote on the legislation today, one day before the Senate Committee on Indian Affairs is to consider a similar version.

Bennett's letter prompted the House committee's top Republican, Rep. Doc Hastings of Washington state, to call for a delay in the vote. A determination on the possible delay has not yet been made.

Abercrombie is the measure's top House sponsor and a member of the committee.

The Lingle administration has for years actively participated in negotiations over the Akaka Bill, Bennett said. But the Governor's Office received two of Abercrombie's proposed amendments on Monday and the rest from Republican committee aides yesterday, he said.

The current bill would require negotiations between the U.S. government, the state and the native Hawaiian governing entity to determine how they would relate to each other, and what rights each would have.

One of the proposed changes would immediately give the native Hawaiian entity many of the rights that American Indian tribal governments enjoy. That change has “;enormous potential to negatively impact Hawaii and its citizens,”; Bennett said.

He did not provide examples of those rights, but said the proposed amendments would not grant native Hawaiians the ability to offer legalized gambling.

Abercrombie's proposals also would eliminate the current measure's language that retains the state's sovereign immunity from lawsuits, and would add more provisions detailing how a person could qualify as a native Hawaiian, Bennett said.

The changes also could generate new disputes over the status of some Hawaii land, he added.

The amendments should be defeated, Bennett said. But if they are accepted, the committee should hold another hearing with testimony to more thoroughly understand the new bill before it is sent to the House floor, he said.

Abercrombie's office and the state Office of Hawaiian Affairs did not immediately respond to requests for comment.

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AP writer Kevin Freking in Washington, D.C., contributed to this report.