What is the price of a stolen kingdom? That is the question many Hawaiian activists are posing as the state government tries to put to rest a decades-long dispute over royalties owed to native Hawaiians for use of lands annexed from their ancestors by the US.
The activists believe the state is putting far too small a value on the lands, which comprise 1.8 million acres throughout the archipelago. And they want more money to deal with the dire social problems engulfing many native Hawaiians who disproportionately populate Hawaii's welfare rolls, jail cells, and poor neighborhoods.
"This is a struggle to ensure that the state is living up to its obligations. We are only asking for what the state agreed to, no more and no less," says Haunani Apoliona, head trustee for the Office of Hawaiian Affairs (OHA), the agency created to ensure that the land revenues assist native Hawaiians.
The Hawaiians have an ally in Republican Gov. Linda Lingle who has spoken strongly in favor of settling the dispute quickly and in terms favorable to the natives. Democratic party politicians opposing the settlement say that they must balance the needs of a small group against those of the whole state. They claim that such a compensation would put even more budgetary stress on a government facing hard choices due to the slowdown in tourist arrivals from Asia.
At issue are the so-called "Ceded Lands." The Hawaiian monarchy owned these lands until 1898 when this property entered a public trust upon US annexation of the islands. But as condition of annexation any revenues derived from uses of these lands were designated for "...the benefit of the inhabitants of the Hawaiian Islands for educational and other public purposes," with the exception of lands used by the government. Those lands include prime real estate in the Waikiki resort district as well as land now occupied by Honolulu International Airport.
Until 1978 the state hadn't made explicit provisions to use the trust for native Hawaiians in particular. That year Hawaii rewrote its state Constitution and included a provision to award a share of ceded land revenues to the "betterment of native Hawaiians." In 1980, the state created a new agency, the OHA, to fulfill that mandate. The state and OHA have argued over how much Hawaii must pay to fulfill its constitutional duty ever since.
When Japan's economy crashed in the mid 1990s, it hit Hawaii like a Tsunami. Strapped for cash, the state refused to give in to OHA demands for bigger payouts. In turn, the OHA sued the state and a court ruling in 1996 validated the 20 percent formula, sparking fears of a massive ceded lands obligation backlog - possibly in the billions - coming due. The speculation fueled doubts about Hawaii's state bond ratings and caused a political crisis that has yet to abate. Although a State Supreme Court ruling in September 2001 overturned the previous ruling on a technicality, the specter of huge payments continues to haunt Hawaii's state legislators. In response to the lawsuit and financial jitters, Gov. Benjamin Cayetano halted all annual payments to OHA in 2001.
Today Governor Cayetano is gone but the Hawaiians and the legislature are at an impasse and the stakes are high. Due to the State Supreme Court's decision to toss out the law mandating 20 percent apportionment of ceded-land revenues, legislators have been given the chance to rewrite the law.
That move may prove popular with state residents. Polls show that a majority no longer favor big payouts to settle native Hawaiian claims. Further, the Federal definition of native Hawaiian - someone with at least 50 percent native blood - means that the 20 percent apportionment can only benefit a tiny fraction of the state's population.
The rich and exclusive Kamehameha Schools, a tax-exempt private educational institution serving only native Hawaiians, also ruffles feathers. "If you ... see the Kam Schools rolling in money but your kids can't go there and you see OHA demanding more with the ceded-land payments, at some point you are going to get upset," explains Dan Boylan, a political analyst and instructor at the University of Hawaii.
Right-wing opponents of native-Hawaiian entitlement programs vow to litigate any settlement of the ceded-lands issue that pays out significant monies.
"It's like the grandmother of all affirmative actions. OHA ... gives away public resources explicitly based on race," says H. William Burgess, a retired Honolulu attorney and key opponent of ceded lands settlements. Considering that the Supreme Court has already ruled against native Hawaiians rights in a previous case, Mr. Burgess believes that his challenge could dismantle the payout targeted for native Hawaiians.
For its part, the Lingle administration has sided with OHA. "The governor felt very strongly the previous governor's actions to restrict payment was not correct. She is committed to reactivating those payments," says Micah Kane, the head of the Department of Hawaiian Home Lands.
But the freshman governor is largely powerless to force legislation through the Democrat-dominated state house and senate. The leadership of the legislature, facing cutbacks in public-school funding and possible public-worker layoffs, seems intent on offering less than the $10 million that OHA had received in past settlements.
But after waiting decades, native Hawaiians are determined to receive reparations.
"We're not unreasonable people," says OHA administrator Clyde Namu'o. "The trustees understand there is a fiscal crisis in our state. The point is these are obligations that must be paid."