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Akaka Bill needs airing


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POSTED: Sunday, December 20, 2009

Sen. Daniel Akaka surprised observers of the Hawaiian sovereignty bill bearing his name by injecting controversial changes that drew opposition from Gov. Linda Lingle, a longtime supporter of the bill. The congressional delegation needs to conduct hearings during the present holiday recess to clear the air and, if it can, justify the bill's changes.

Akaka appears to have left many in the dark about the changes to the bill in the days preceding action by the Senate Indian Affairs Committee. Rep. Neil Abercrombie decided against presenting the changes to the House Natural Resources Committee, which approved the bill in its original form, following a blistering letter by Hawaii Attorney General Mark Bennett and an extraordinary rebuke of Akaka by Sen. Daniel Inouye.

In a prepared statement on the eve of the House committee action, Inouye said “;events of the past 24 hours were totally unexpected.”; He added that he was “;very surprised”; that the revisions “;were not shared”; with Lingle. Inouye did not say whether he had been aware of the pending changes.

The Akaka Bill has been regarded in recent years as one that would give Hawaiians sovereignty similar to that of Indian tribes, while retaining federal and state jurisdiction of civil and criminal laws. The changes just passed by the Senate Indian Affairs Committee would recognize the Hawaiian governing council as “;an Indian tribe,”; with all that comes with that status except legalized gambling. For example, many Indian laws rather than state or federal laws are enforced on their reservations.

“;These changes may immediately incorporate into the law governing native Hawaiians a vast body of Indian law, much of which is unsuited for the state of Hawaii, and none of which (to our knowledge) has been evaluated for its impact on Hawaii,”; Bennett asserted in a letter to House committee leaders. The changes “;will certainly engender new disputes over the status of much of the land in Hawaii,”; he added.

Bennett, who received the changes on the eve of the House committee action from Republican committee staffers, also noted that the newly-changed Senate bill has a new term—“;Qualified Native Hawaiian Constituent”;—defined in six pages of the bill. No public hearings on that term have ever been conducted.

“;This is not a closed book,”; Inouye commented in a statement released by Akaka's office after the Senate committee's approval of the changed bill. “;The time to act will be early in the new year and we must move swiftly to ensure native Hawaiians regain their rights of self-determination and self-governance.”;

Akaka says he talked with Lingle and Bennett prior to the Senate committee action and is “;committed to working with them on these issues as we move forward.”; That is not enough. Akaka and other members of the delegation should heed Bennett's call for “;a public hearing, with testimony”; on the new Akaka Bill.

The congressional committees now lack jurisdiction over the bills, which are on their way to the Senate and House floors. But nothing should keep the Hawaii delegation from conducting a hearing during the holiday recess, which ends Jan. 12.