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Tuesday, January 16, 2001

Hawaii State Seal


Plan: Take
home lands out
of state hands

Rep. Gomes tomorrow will
introduce a bill to transfer
homestead lands to a
non-state entity

By Pat Omandam

THE state Department of Hawaiian Home Lands and its 203,000 acres of homestead land would be turned over to an entity created by homesteaders -- one of a few legislative ideas aimed at protecting native entitlements in the face of legal challenges.

State Rep. Joe Gomes (R, Waimanalo-Lanikai) plans to introduce a bill shortly after the session convenes tomorrow to hand off Hawaiian Homes' assets to beneficiaries. They, in turn, must form a private entity, trust, nonprofit group or other organization that would give the homestead program greater autonomy.

The plan not only addresses the Rice vs. Cayetano decision, but it also gets the state out of the business of awarding homestead land, Gomes said. The constitutionality of the Department of Hawaiian Home Lands and the Office of Hawaiian Affairs is being challenged in federal court this spring as a result of the Rice decision, and it was the focus of a large rally yesterday at the state Capitol.

"Divesting ourselves from DHHL is a meaningful step to empower Hawaiians to be more independent and more autonomous," said Gomes. He said he knows his plan might raise the same opposition that killed a controversial bill by state Rep. Ed Case (D, Manoa) in 1998 that would have merged OHA and Hawaiian Homes into a trust corporation.

Gomes said he feels the timing is right for such proposals, and lawmakers should be proactive and not reactive to a court ruling.

"It is not a 'take away'; it's a giveaway ... I think it's the right thing to do even if Rice never happened," he said.

Other ideas to protect native entitlements include possible bills that allow OHA to create a for-profit private trust where it could transfer its $375 million investment portfolio.

There also are resolutions planned to reaffirm the state's support of the Hawaiian Homes department and its mission.

Foremost for Hawaiians, however, is unity in the face of a legal challenge by Moiliili resident Patrick Barrett, who seeks a preliminary injunction to stop the work of Hawaiian Homes agency and OHA until a full hearing can be heard on his claim that they are unconstitutional.

The hearing on the preliminary injunction is set for March 12.

Attorney Robert Klein, retired Hawaii Supreme Court associate justice, was hired by the State Council of Hawaiian Homestead Associations to represent the homesteaders. The group wants to intervene or become a party in the Barrett case alongside the state.

Klein told the 600 people gathered at the Capitol courtyard yesterday the outcome of the litigation is very dangerous and is the greatest challenge to Hawaiians since the 1893 overthrow.

He said it makes the Rice case looks like "small claims court."

"I am optimistic about our fight because it is right and it is just, and I believe the court will find in the end that this is the case," Klein said

He and other speakers urged unity among Hawaiians to protect their rights and entitlements and to raise awareness about the case.

By day's end, homesteaders set up a small rock formation in the middle of a blue circular mosaic in the courtyard as an offering and as a reminder to lawmakers not to forget native issues this session.

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