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Panel passes Akaka Bill

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A proposal to grant native Hawaiians federal recognition similar to that of American Indians and Alaska natives advanced out of committee yesterday and awaits consideration by the full U.S. Senate.

Since it was first introduced in 1999, the substance of the Native Hawaiian Government Reorganization Act has never faced a straight up-or-down vote in the Senate, something its chief sponsor, U.S. Sen. Daniel Akaka, aims to change before he retires next year.

The bill was passed yesterday by the Senate Indian Affairs Committee, chaired by Akaka. It reached a similar point in the legislative process last year but stalled as the Senate debated matters including health care reform, the extension of Bush-era tax cuts and the “don’t ask, don’t tell” policy toward gays in the military.

“Over the years, we have had extensive hearings on this issue — all stakeholders have had an opportunity to present their views, and we have strengthened our bill with their input,” Akaka said in remarks prepared for the meeting. “Now is the time to move this legislation forward.”

Better known as the Akaka Bill, after its chief sponsor, the bill would create a process for Hawaiians to form their own governing entity and negotiate with federal and state governments on land use and cultural issues.

The bill does not include provisions to allow for gambling, nor does it set forth a process by which Hawaii may secede from the United States. It also does not allow for private land to be taken or for the creation of a reservation in Hawaii.

Akaka reintroduced the bill last week. It was co-sponsored by Sen. Daniel Inouye of Hawaii and Sens. Mark Begich and Lisa Murkowski of Alaska. A companion bill has been introduced in the House.

Clyde Namuo, chief executive officer of the Office of Hawaiian Affairs, commended Akaka for moving the bill forward.

“Recognition is good for native Hawaiians, and we believe it will be beneficial for everyone in the state of Hawaii,” he said in a statement.

Hawaiian Homes Commission Chairman Alapaki Nahale-a, who attended yesterday’s Indian Affairs Committee meeting in Washington, D.C., also offered the state agency’s support of the bill.

“Native Hawaiians should feel heartened that self-determination is on the horizon,” he said.

Wording in the current version of the bill was proposed by the White House and negotiated between the U.S. Justice Department and Hawaii’s congressional delegation. It passed the Indian Affairs Committee in 2009 but stalled before reaching the Senate floor. Several GOPsenators balked after then-Hawaii Gov. Linda Lingle, a Republican, objected to the changes. A compromise bill was negotiated but never voted on.

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