In 2004, the Hawaiian Homes Commission entered into a lease to allow a private developer to construct a resort on Hawaiian Homestead land in the coastal Honokohau area of Hawaii Island.
The commission believed that the lease — allowing tourists to live in timeshares on Hawaiian Homestead lands — was needed in order to raise sufficient money to run the Department of Hawaiian Home Lands.
Because they did not believe that Hawaiian Home Lands should be leased to commercial interests when thousands of native Hawaiians are waiting for their promised homesteads, a group of native Hawaiians sued.
The Hawaiian Homes Commission Act was enacted in 1920 to provide native Hawaiians land that they were promised, but not provided, at the time of the Mahele. The Hawaiian Home Lands were set aside, in Prince Kuhio’s words, "as a matter of justice — belated justice."
Unfortunately, large plantations and other corporate interests ensured that these "homelands" consisted of the least productive lands.
In 1959, the newly formed state of Hawaii, as a condition of statehood, entered into a solemn compact with the United States to assume the trust duties of the Hawaiian Homes Commission Act. Nevertheless, the state abused this trust responsibility — giving away homelands to others; failing to provide funding; mismanaging the wait lists. In order to raise money, the Department of Hawaiian Home Lands leased lands that could have been best used for homesteading.
The abuse was so bad and so well documented that in 1978, we the people voted to amend our state Constitution to ensure that the Hawaiian Homes Department was sufficiently funded. At that time, Hawaiian Homes was the only state department forced to pay its own way to operate because the state declined to provide it with any general revenue funds.
Despite that pledge, the waiting list for homestead awards has quadrupled over the three decades since the amendment was ratified.
After John Waihee was elected governor, the state compensated Hawaiian Homes for past breaches of the trust. These settlement monies let the Lingle administration accelerate the award of some homesteads. At the same time, however, the Lingle administration eliminated any general fund revenues to operate the Department of Hawaiian Home Lands. Instead, the governor and the Legislature ordered the department to pay its own way — just as it was doing in 1978 and contrary to the design of the new constitutional provision. Thus, the state does not "routinely" pay to operate the department, as alleged in the Star-Advertiser editorial ("Ruling on DHHL misses mark," Jan. 21).
Over the past two decades, funding for the Department of Hawaiian Home Lands has decreased. The Legislature requires the department to lease homelands to raise revenue. At the same time, legislative funding for the tourism industry, for which there is no constitutional mandate for funding, has skyrocketed from a few million dollars in the early 1980s to more than $70 million per year in the current fiscal year.
"It’s a matter of justice …" long overdue.