Restore Akaka Bill's original language


POSTED: Sunday, March 28, 2010

When Congress convened after the Democratic success in the 2008 elections, passage of Sen. Daniel Akaka's Hawaiian sovereignty bill seemed assured. A rewriting of the bill since then has cost Gov. Linda Lingle's past support and failure to adequately explain the changes threatens to sink the bill in today's sharply partisan Senate. The authors have only themselves to blame for the predicament and should take corrective action.

The radical changes in the bill came to light last December as House and Senate versions were prepared for committee action. Sen. Daniel Inouye expressed surprise that the changes had not been presented to Lingle, a longtime advocate. State Attorney General Mark Bennett called for new public hearings, as did the Star-Bulletin, but the requests were ignored.

Caught by surprise, then-Rep. Neil Abercrombie decided to stick with the original bill in presenting it to a House committee in December. However, when it reached the House floor last month, Abercrombie injected the new language, and it won House approval on roughly party lines. Abercrombie is running for governor.

The significant change in the Akaka Bill would recognize the Hawaiian governing council as equivalent to “;an Indian tribe,”; with nearly all that comes with that status. The original bill would have directed the state and the governing council to enter into negotiations about their relationship.

In a letter to all members of the Senate last week, Lingle said she now opposes the Akaka Bill because of its “;decidedly different approach,”; deeming the governing council “;sovereign from the start”;—before negotiations with the state were to take place.

In a terse response, Akaka maintained that the governing council “;will possess the same level of sovereign immunity provided to the more than 500 other native governments in the United States.”;

However, Akaka did not mention that most of those Indian tribes have reservations where their rules prevail over state statutes. Lingle pointed out that “;federal Indian law is remarkably undeveloped when it comes to the powers of tribes that lack a land base,”; and the Akaka Bill “;does not provide a land base to the native Hawaiian people.”;

As a result, Lingle predicted, the Hawaiian governmental entity and its leaders could “;conduct activities anywhere in Hawaii (and potentially any other state) in a way that is inconsistent with state criminal statutes otherwise applicable to all citizens, and inconsistent with virtually every conceivable state law that serves to protect the public.”;

When the original Akaka Bill went before the Senate in 2006, the 56-41 vote fell short of the 60 votes needed to overcome a filibuster, even though 13 Republicans voted for cloture. The number of Democrats has grown from 45 to 58, but the political climate has changed drastically. So has the bill itself, and its sponsors should restore the original language to regain bipartisan support.