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H.R. 505 clears committee without amendment

WASHINGTON - The latest version of a bill that would authorize a process for re-establishing a Native Hawaiian governing entity in the islands passed from committee without a pair of prepared amendments May 2. Rep. Jeff Flake, R-Ariz., brought the hostile amendments forward in draft form, but did not appear after a break in the Natural Resources Committee hearing to offer them formally. The bill, widely known as the Akaka Bill after Sen. Daniel Akaka, D-Hawaii, then passed the committee by unanimous consent and will go to the full House of Representatives, which has passed prior versions of the bill in three successive congressional sessions.

Following a pattern established early in the current 110th Congress by the Republican Study Committee, the conservative wing of the House GOP, Flake prepared one amendment stating that nothing in the proposed law ''shall relieve any sovereign entity within the jurisdiction of the United States'' from compliance with the 14th Amendment, requiring equal treatment of every citizen under the law. A second prepared amendment from Flake sought to prohibit land transfers to the eventual Native Hawaiian governing entity, as well as other governing authorities and privileges, ''unless and until the proposed organic governing documents for the Native Hawaiian governing entity ... are approved by a majority of registered voters in the state of Hawaii.''

According to several witnesses before House and Senate hearings on the Akaka Bill, nothing in it justifies the 14th Amendment concern of Flake's first amendment.

Rep. Neil Abercrombie, D-Hawaii, addressed the substance of the second amendment in debate on the bill. Abercrombie assured Flake and other Western state lawmakers that the Akaka Bill is not dedicated to the seizure of land by government, but to Native Hawaiian control of existing land assets long ago ceded to them.

''This is inherently a very conservative bill ... What we're trying to do in Hawaii is get the government out of the lives of Native Hawaiians so that they can make their own decisions. The bottom line here is that this is a bill about the control of assets. This is about land, this is about money, and this is about who has the administrative authority and responsibility over it. And all this bill does is enable the Native Hawaiians to be able to come back to the Secretary of Interior and ask for permission to move ahead to take up the governance of the land and the funds that are in question.''

In reference to legal arguments that have sprung up against Native Hawaiian assets and decision-making as race-based in the absence of a federally recognized Native Hawaiian government, Abercrombie said they've only cropped up since the assets in question became economically valuable.

''When the original ceded land was there, it wasn't worth anything. It didn't have the infrastructure on it. It didn't have the cachet for housing and all the rest. When the homestead land was put out there, it had no roads, it had no electricity, it had no sewer system, it had no infrastructure of any kind. So that when as you put up your homestead, you couldn't even be sure that you could get water. It wasn't worth anything. The leases weren't out there on the ceded land, like the airport now ... so there wasn't any money coming in.

''When the land wasn't worth anything, and when there was no money in the bank, and when there was no cash flow, nobody gave a damn what happened to the Native Hawaiians. There was no argument about discrimination or whether it was fair or not. But the second the land became worth something, the second that the homesteads were ripe for development, the second that the cash appeared, the second that the cash flow was there, then all of a sudden people got concerned about it.''

Patricia Zell, a lobbyist for the bill with Zell and Cox Law in Washington, added after the hearing that the concerns of Flake's second prepared amendment are already accomplished in the state laws of Hawaii, which would require a change in the state's constitution to approve transfer of the ceded lands to the governing entity. A vote to amend the state constitution is by law open to all registered voters. The same conditions would pertain to the transfer of resources to the governing entity. ''I can understand why perhaps he [Flake] might have been persuaded that the amendment wasn't necessary,'' Zell said.