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Lawmakers consider transferring to OHA an estimated $638M of withheld public land trust revenues

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Catherine Cruz/Hawaii Public Radio
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Hawaiʻi lawmakers are considering a measure that would transfer to the Office of Hawaiian Affairs hundreds of millions of dollars in public land trust revenues – money long withheld from the agency.

Senate Bill 2021 proposes to help resolve the decades-old dispute over how much of the public land trust revenues should be directed toward the betterment of Native Hawaiians.

State law and the Hawaiʻi State Constitution require the state to use 20% of the revenue it receives from the public land trust for the betterment of the Native Hawaiian people, a kuleana given to OHA.

But any increase in OHA’s share of public land trust revenues concerns other state agencies who receive a slice of the public land trust pie.

"We believe it would have a potentially severe impact on our budget," said Ian Hirokawa with the state Department of Land and Natural Resources while testifying Tuesday in opposition to the bill.

"We are largely funded by our lease revenue and you know they go to fund natural resource management, protection programs, and we feel that if we were to have to pay more to OHA, it could potentially have a severe impact on our budget and our programs," Hirokawa said.

The public land trust is made up of about 1.4 million acres of former Hawaiian Kingdom Crown and Government Lands, also known as ceded lands. These lands are managed by DLNR and leased to airports, hospitals, government agencies, and the university just to name a few.

ʻEwa Sen. Kurt Fevella says the state has a moral imperative to pass the measure.

"I understand DLNR and all of these guys saying it's going to affect their overall revenue, but if the money again belongs and is the only avenue that the people of Hawaiʻi have with OHA. I just don’t understand," Fevella said.

Last year the state brought in about $205 million in public land trust revenue. Twenty percent of that number would mean $41 million for OHA.

But Waiʻanae Sen. Maile Shimabukuro pointed out that number could be even more — if it were not for federal legislation exempting the state Department of Transportation from paying for the use of public trust lands for airports.

"That really has been an issue for a long time. The airport being exempt makes all the other departments feel like they have to make up for the shortfall. I can see why that would be unfair to all of you," Shimabukuro said.

OHA’s share of public land trust revenues has been the subject of multiple lawsuits, especially after legislators capped the amount of the 20% that OHA could receive at $15.1 million in 2006.

Each year since, the remaining amount of OHA’s share has been held by the state. SB 2021 would transfer these overpayments, which OHA estimates at $638 million, to the agency.

"The way this bill is written, it sounds as though we are just talking about giving OHA the overpayments. So we’re not talking about new monies being given at this point in time, in this bill," Shimabukuro said.

The Senate Hawaiian Affairs Committee unanimously passed SB 2021. The measure now awaits a hearing by the Senate Ways and Means Committee.

Kuʻuwehi Hiraishi is a general assignment reporter at Hawaiʻi Public Radio. Her commitment to her Native Hawaiian community and her fluency in ʻōlelo Hawaiʻi has led her to build a de facto ʻōiwi beat at the news station. Send your story ideas to her at khiraishi@hawaiipublicradio.org.
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