Gov. Linda Lingle has agreed to strongly support a native Hawaiian federal recognition bill after U.S. Sens. Daniel Inouye and Daniel Akaka promised to insert changes to protect the state’s regulatory power.
The Republican governor said she will send letters to senators expressing her support, which Inouye and Akaka hope will help persuade the Senate to vote as soon as this month to break procedural roadblocks by Senate Republicans. The Hawaii Democrats need 60 of the Senate’s 100 members to overcome the roadblocks and advance the bill, which has been held up for a decade by opponents who believe it is race-based discrimination.
The new version of the bill would still grant Hawaiians sovereign authority prior to negotiations with the federal and state governments on land use and cultural issues. But it would recognize the state’s authority to regulate activities by a new Hawaiian government to protect the public’s health and safety during the negotiations.
The changes also make clear that a new Hawaiian government would not be immune from state lawsuits to enforce the state’s regulatory power.
The bill also now clarifies that officers or employees of a new Hawaiian government would not be immune from the state’s criminal laws.
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The Obama administration wants Hawaiians to have sovereign authority prior to negotiations — rather than after, like in previous versions of the bill — so Hawaiians would be treated similarly to federally recognized American Indians and Alaska natives. But Lingle objected in December and withdrew her long-standing support. The bill passed the U.S. House in February but it did not appear it would advance in the Senate without the governor as an ally.
Akaka informed the White House yesterday about the changes. Inouye is expected to speak to the White House today.
"I am very glad the Akaka Bill will be amended to reflect the state’s concerns," Lingle said in a statement, adding that she hopes the bill becomes federal law this year.
Akaka, the bill’s main sponsor, has pushed for a Senate vote this year while Democrats still hold a strong majority.
Inouye and others have urged Akaka to act soon, and to accept amendments to win back Lingle’s support, or risk losing an oppor- tunity since the political composition of the Senate could change after the November elections.
Inouye and Akaka said they would try to get time on the Senate floor this month, before the Senate goes into an August recess.
"I think we’re on our way," Inouye told reporters yesterday after a Senate Appropriations Committee field hearing on federal stimulus spending at the state Capitol.
Inouye said the Senate will likely be consumed with spending bills in September and will likely break in October so senators can return home to prepare for the elections. The Senate will likely hold a lame-duck session after the elections, but Senate staffers and other observers believe it is too risky to wait.
"The problem is that, at this date, time is of the essence," Inouye said.
Akaka initially resisted amending the bill, several sources said privately, since the bill had been drafted with help from the Obama administration and had passed the House. But Akaka also recognized the need to act quickly and to secure enough Senate votes to overcome procedural roadblocks.
Several Senate Republicans wrote to U.S. Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., in June reaffirming their opposition and citing Lingle’s objections.
Two attorneys close to Inouye, Akaka and the state Office of Hawaiian Affairs worked with state Attorney General Mark Bennett on the changes. Akaka informed Bennett on Friday that he and Inouye would accept the amendments.
"After a thorough review of the state’s most recent proposal, I determined that the changes will not diminish the bill’s intent to establish a federally recognized government-to-government relationship with the United States," Akaka said in a statement.
"I believe these changes will help secure additional votes in the Senate to overcome procedural hurdles and receive an up-or-down vote on the bill. We need to act quickly to ensure the bill passes the Senate and is signed into law this year.
"I remain optimistic that the United States will finally extend federal recognition to native Hawaiians and end over a century of inequality in its treatment of its indigenous peoples."
Bennett said Lingle has long supported the principle of native Hawaiian sovereignty. "I think it’s fair to say that these provisions are a compromise on everybody’s part," he said.
The bill will have to be amended on the Senate floor. If it passes, it would have to be reconciled with the House version before it could go to Obama. The Hawaii-born Obama has said he would sign a Hawaiian recognition bill into law.
Clyde Namuo, OHA’s chief executive officer, also described the new version of the bill as a compromise.
"It may not be perfect. It at least is closer to the self-determination concept that we would support, that we would want to see," he said. "And I think there is still time to tweak the language in future congresses if we need to.
"I think, again, because the window of opportunity seems so short, I think getting it passed is the primary objective."