DHHL officials ask lawmakers for $28M to cover operational costs

DHHL officials ask lawmakers for $28M to cover operational costs
Image: Hawaii News Now
Image: Hawaii News Now

HONOLULU (HawaiiNewsNow) - It would be a law to enforce a law, but the state Department of Hawaiian Homelands officials say it's necessary if Hawaii wants to reduce its 27,000-person waiting list and develop more lots for Native Hawaiians.

House Bill 1932 is aimed at ensuring that DHHL gets their constitutionally-obligated funding for lot development, loans, rehabilitation projects, and operations and administrative expenses.

A recent Circuit Court ruling (in the Nelson v. Hawaiian Homes Commission case) reaffirmed the state's fiduciary duty to DHHL's operations and administrative expenses and determined that amount equates to a little more than $28 million. DHHL officials say operations and administrative expenses are essentially what keeps their lights on and salaries paid; it is not money that is used for lot development or infrastructure or loans to help finance leases.

"If we could get those resources from state funds, like all other state agencies that have general funding for their operations, then we wouldn't have to use revenues generated on trust lands to pay for our operations and that could actually go back to directly benefit beneficiary families both on the land as well as on the list," said DHHL Director Jobie Masagatani.

The bill is making its way through the Legislature, and DHHL officials argue it will allow them to stop using the money they generate on trust lands to pay for their basic operations. Instead, they'll be able to use that money toward their mission of reconnecting people to the land.

"The vision for Kuhio was to return our families to the land. We have 10,000 families across the homestead settled on the land and they've created communities over the last 90 years that have become the piko of our Hawaiian community," Masagatani said. "When you think about where Hawaiians live, many are from the homestead. So I think against all the challenges and obstacles Hawaiian Homes has faced, we have thrived. But as DHHL has often said, it's difficult for us to meet our obligations when we don't have the resources to do so."

The Hawaiian Homelands waiting list has ballooned from 5,700 people in 1978 to more than 27,000 applicants.

"This bill will help those people that have been waiting for years," Joe Tassil, a former Hawaiian Homes commissioner, told lawmakers Wednesday.

"If you were a descendant of one of these kupuna that silently waited, humbly ate the stone for this to happen? Can you imagine the impact that you will give to our people just by starting to live the Constitution?"

DHHL officials say they share their beneficiaries' frustrations, but their hands have been tied by a lack of funding.

Momilani Sidel, a beneficiary who lives in Kapolei homestead, cited Article XII, Section 12 of the state Constitution at a hearing Wednesday: "The Legislature shall make sufficient sums available for the administration and operating budget of the Department of Hawaiian Homelands."

She continued, "Why must the Department of Hawaiian Homelands on behalf of its beneficiaries beg for what is Constitutionally mandated?"

Most state agencies get their operational expenses covered by the state's general fund, but for years DHHL has covered operations in part by using the revenue generated from their trust lands.

"Our hands are tied because we get stuck. Our beneficiaries get stuck in all of this," Paula Aila told lawmakers.

"We have the land so just put the Hawaiians on the land, but we can't do that without funding and we can't do that without your obligation and your oath to do that. You're currently funding other departments that are not mandated and you provide general funds for their administrative and operating expenses. We use our trust dollars and that to me is egregious," said Aila, who works for DHHL but testified on her own time as a beneficiary.

If the bill before lawmakers passes, DHHL officials say it would free up money that could go toward reducing their wait list by developing new lots and improving infrastructure in existing communities.

"The need is quite substantial. At least it would allow for the resources generated on the Homelands to be used to directly benefit beneficiaries and not go to pay salaries and expenses of DHHL," said Masagatani.

Advocates for the bill also say more Hawaiian Homelands development means rental and other affordable housing units Native Hawaiians are currently living in would become available to others in need.

"What helps Native Hawaiians attaining the land that was promised them in 1920 helps the entire state of Hawaii. The homelessness issue is in part the fact of Hawaiian Homes' problems as well," Alan Murakami, of the Moku O Keawe Homestead Alliance, told lawmakers.

"Here is an agency that is designed to provide permanent housing, which is what the homeless effort is trying to do -- provide permanent housing, but making up the infrastructure as it goes along. You could basically kill two birds with one stone by paying attention to this issue. Address it in a forthright manner. Recognize the fact that there is all this unity across the state."

Lawmakers say they understand their constitutional obligations, but also want assurances that the money will be spent as it's meant to.

"I think there's a misconception right now that the Legislature does not support the Hawaiian Homelands Department and I want to reaffirm that we do. At least, through my committee, we're going to do everything we can that those on the waitlist get their homes and beneficiaries are taken care of as well," said state Rep. Kaniela Ing, (D - Kihei, Wailea, Makena), chairman of the House Ocean, Marine Resources and Hawaiian Affairs Committee.

"We need hard outcomes which is people in homes and we need beneficiaries feeling like they're getting taken care of as the law requires."

The Department of Hawaiian Home Lands was established by the Hawaiian Homes Commission Act of 1920, which was passed by Congress in 1921. It "provides for the rehabilitation of the Native Hawaiian people through a government-sponsored homesteading program."

Native Hawaiians eligible for benefits are defined as "individuals having at least 50 percent Hawaiian blood." Under the act, DHHL provides "direct benefits to Native Hawaiians in the form of 99-year homestead leases at an annual rental of $1."

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