SIMI VALLEY, Calif. | The stars finally may have aligned for Sen. Daniel K. Akaka’s effort to win sovereignty for Native Hawaiians.
Last week, Mr. Akaka, Hawaii Democrat, reintroduced the Native Hawaiian Government Reorganization Act, better known as the Akaka bill. The proposal would give Native Hawaiians, those who can trace their ancestry to the arrival of Capt. James Cook, the explorer, in 1778 similar status to that of American Indians by allowing them to acquire public lands and form their own semisovereign government.
Lining up in support of the Akaka bill are House and Senate Democrats, the Hawaiian Legislature, the governor of Hawaii and President Obama, himself a native-born Hawaiian, albeit not a Native Hawaiian, who said during the campaign that he would sign the bill.
Waging a frantic campaign to stop the bill are a cluster of conservative think tanks, a few Republican lawmakers and a handful of conservative columnists. If it doesn’t seem like a fair fight, that’s because it’s probably not.
“We’re optimistic about passage, sure,” said Akaka spokesman Jesse Broder Van Dyke. “It’s certainly helpful to have a president who supports it.”
The bill’s backers argue that Native Hawaiians deserve the same rights of self-governance and self-determination as other indigenous people. They point to the overthrow of the kingdom of Hawaii by American and European businessmen in 1893, calling it a wrong that needs to be addressed by repatriating lands and sovereignty to Native Hawaiians.
“This process is important for all people of Hawaii, so we can finally resolve the long-standing issues resulting from the overthrow of the kingdom of Hawaii and move forward together to provide a better future for the children of Hawaii,” Mr. Akaka said in his Feb. 4 remarks introducing this year’s bill.
The Akaka bill has passed the House twice, most recently in 2007 but was narrowly defeated in 2006, when it came up short on a cloture vote. One problem was that President Bush had made it clear he would veto the bill.
Without the threat of the Bush veto, and in the absence of organized Republican opposition, the bill’s critics fear it could sail through despite what they describe as a host of unintended but nonetheless dire consequences.
“The devil’s in the details, or not in the details, as the case may be,” said Jamie Story, president of the Grassroot Institute of Hawaii, a think tank opposing the Akaka bill.
The Akaka bill doesn’t say how much land would be turned over to a newly formed Native Hawaiian government, only that no private lands would be confiscated. That leaves about 2 million acres, now controlled by the federal and state governments, that could be up for grabs, or about 38 percent of the island’s landmass.
A study conducted by the Beacon Hill Institute at Suffolk University and released Monday estimates that the bill could cost the state up to $690 million a year in lost revenue, given the loss of land and tax base.
The Akaka bill doesn’t explicitly say that Native Hawaiians, who number about 400,000, or 20 percent of the state’s population, would be exempt from state income and sales taxes, but that’s the expectation among supporters.
“Lots of people who would normally be opposed to something like this are looking at it and because it’s so vague, they don’t think it’s that worrisome,” Miss Story said. “It feels good, it sounds good, and people say, ‘Oh, we want to support Native Hawaiians.’ ”
At a recent conference here at the Ronald Reagan Presidential Library, sponsored by the Federalist Society, critics said the Akaka bill’s passage could lead to similar separatist movements by other distinct racial minorities, such as those of Mexican ancestry in the Southwest or Cajuns in Louisiana.
There’s also the fear that the bill could lead Hawaii to break from the union, although Mr. Akaka insisted the legislation allows neither secession nor the authorization of gambling.
“If ethnic Hawaiians can be an Indian tribe, then why not Chicanos in the American Southwest? There are people who firmly believe that the Southwest United States is part of Aztlan,” said Gail Heriot, a University of San Diego School of Law professor. “What about the Amish? Who’s going to have the political will to draw the line here?”
Not Hawaiian Republicans, she said, noting that Gov. Linda Lingle, a Republican, has come out in favor of the bill and lobbied on its behalf on Capitol Hill. In the Senate, the bill’s most vocal foe has been Sen. Jon Kyl, Arizona Republican.
“This is not the Republican Party’s finest hour,” Miss Heriot said.
This comes despite polls showing that most Hawaiians oppose the bill and even Native Hawaiians are divided when told that they would be subject to a different legal and tax system, she said.
Davianna McGregor, a professor at the University of Hawaii, said the bill would allow Native Hawaiians to reclaim their “rightful inheritance” and address some of their social problems. Native Hawaiians have higher rates of unemployment and incarceration than other Hawaiian subgroups, she said.
“As a way to address these historic injuries, the widespread population acknowledges that Native Hawaiians have rights to these historic lands,” Miss McGregor said.
However, critics argue that without a plan in place, the result could be mayhem.
“Suddenly the state of Hawaii won’t have this money any more. Then there’s the question of which services the state of Hawaii will no longer be provided to Native Hawaiians,” Miss Heriot said. “It’s going to be chaotic, but the bill itself cheerily goes on.”