This year’s unprecedented legislative session featured measures involving employment discrimination, land transfers, the potential alienation of “ceded” lands – and a global pandemic that landed on Hawai‘i’s shores in early spring. After COVID-19 led to an abrupt recess in session, legislators reconvened to focus primarily on pandemic relief measures, resulting in extremely few bills making it through the legislative process this year. Nonetheless, one OHA package measure did make it to the governor’s desk and has now been enacted into law.
One of OHA’s 2020 Legislative Package measures, SB2193 HD2, signed into law as Act 51, prohibits employment discrimination based on decade-old conviction records – an auspicious feat, since most legislative proposals died due to COVID-19. SB2193 HD2 shortens the length of time convictions may be used in employment decisions, from 10 years for all convictions to seven years for felonies and five years for misdemeanors (schools and care homes will continue to consider older convictions and related information in their hiring decisions).
This will reduce the stigma carried by those who have long since paid their debt to society, and enable them to contribute to our economy and support their families through gainful and legitimate employment. This law will also help to mitigate the longstanding and disproportionate impact of the criminal justice system on the Native Hawaiian community.
During the last session OHA helped block several bills that would have reduced protective oversight for natural and cultural resources on thousands of acres of public lands. These bills proposed to mandate the transfer of over 100,000 acres of public “pasture” lands from the Department of Land and Natural Resources (DLNR) to the less-equipped Department of Agriculture (DOA), to facilitate improvements on the public lands ranchers currently occupy under DLNR leases or revocable permits.
Consistent with an older law encouraging such transfers when appropriate, DLNR already transferred over 18,000 acres of pasture lands to the DOA. Opposing the new measures, DLNR argued that it excluded other parcels from transfer to maintain oversight over their natural and cultural resources. Often comprised of remnant native forests untouched by industrial agriculture, these parcels include important natural and cultural resources and sites, trails used by hunters and cultural practitioners, and are adjacent to important watershed areas.
Voicing similar concerns, OHA noted that the DOA had little institutional memory, expertise or staff capacity to manage lands for their natural and cultural values and pointed to “compromise” measures put forward by the DLNR, to try to meet ranchers’ interests. HB2035 was the last surviving measure proposing this land transfer; however, the House could not agree to Senate amendments made, in part, to address OHA’s and DLNR’s concerns, and the bill was shelved.
Also notable last session was SB2946 SD2, which intended to kickstart housing development on state lands, in part, by offering exemptions from laws relating to the leasing and development of public and potentially “ceded” lands. The proposed exemptions included provisions allowing for 99-year leaseholds of such lands – a proposal of concern to OHA, given that Native Hawaiian claims to “ceded” lands have never been relinquished or resolved.
OHA continues to work on identifying equitable approaches to ensure that Native Hawaiians claims are appropriately recognized in any long-term disposition of former crown and government lands “ceded” after the illegal overthrow of the Hawaiian Kingdom. SB2946 SD2, along with similar measures, died after COVID-19 shutdown the Capitol.
Finally, OHA helped support the successful passage of SB2386 SD2 HD2, which prohibits waste or disposal facilities in the state conservation district and requires a half-mile buffer zone between any new, modified or expanded waste or disposal facilities and any residential, school or hospital property line. This bill helps protect precious conservation district lands that hold natural resources essential to healthy ecosystems and our islands’ sustainability, as well as cultural resources and sites.
OHA is now preparing for next year’s legislative session and is looking forward to collaborating with like-minded agencies, community groups, and individuals over the coming months.