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Measure that would settle OHA's share of public land trust revenue heads to final Senate vote

FILE - Hawaiʻi Senate
Catherine Cruz
FILE - Hawaiʻi Senate

Updated Feb. 23, 2022 at 4:15 p.m.

Hawaiʻi lawmakers are considering a bill to settle unresolved issues over exactly how much public land trust revenue the state must direct toward the betterment of Native Hawaiians. State law specifies 20% of that revenue goes to the Office of Hawaiian Affairs, but the definition of what constitutes “revenue” has been a sticking point between OHA and the state for years.

The Senate Ways and Means Committee advanced a measure Wednesday that sets OHA’s annual share of PLT revenues at $15.1 million or 20% of net receipts from PLT lands — whichever is greater. Senate Bill 2021 would also transfer to OHA a lump-sum payment of PLT revenues that were either misallocated, underreported or underpaid, during the last 10 fiscal years. OHA estimates that number to be $638 million.

Last year, the state reportedly brought in about $205 million in revenues from the use of public land trust or PLT lands. But Naʻu Kamaliʻi, OHA chief advocate, says OHA estimates that number is about $190 million short.

"Part of the issue that the Office of Hawaiian Affairs has been dealing with is that it’s a self-reporting system. So each agency self-reports what their income and proceeds are from those lands, and then also applies its own accounting and then what they believe the 20% share is," Kamaliʻi said.

"Now, we can’t verify their numbers, so we rely at least on their reports, and looking at their reports, some of it just doesn’t add up," she said.

OHA had an independent financial review of PLT revenues completed back in 2017, which found several entities underreport or withhold PLT receipts. This includes the University of Hawaiʻi, the Department of Human Services, and the Hawaiʻi Health Systems Corporation.

Both UH and DHS say they shouldn’t be required to pay OHA because they provide education and housing to benefit Native Hawaiians and other residents. The HHSC says that having to pay rent on PLT lands may jeopardize its ability to provide quality care in rural communities.

SB2021 would, among other things, provide an official definition of PLT “receipts” and establish a negotiating committee to settle conflicting calculations over PLT revenues.

The measure that advanced out of committee Wednesday now goes to the full Senate for a third and final vote.

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 the Department of Land and Natural Resources and leased to airports, hospitals, government agencies, and the university just to name a few.

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.

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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