The vast majority of us here in Hawaiʻi have been sheltering in place for the last four months. Some of you have been fortunate enough to have navigated our antiquated state unemployment system and receive assistance in these trying times. Some of you have also been able to access support from the Council for Native Hawaiian Advancement’s Kahiau emergency funding that is provided by your Office of Hawaiian Affairs. However, many still need help and have yet to receive any assistance from the state government.
The state constitution says that the Office of Hawaiian Affairs is to be funded by a pro-rata share of the revenues generated on ceded lands as provided by law. In 1980 the state legislature passed a law that stipulated that pro-rata amount was 20%. Subsequently, the state legislature decided that only $15.1 million of that 20% would be paid to the Office of Hawaiian Affairs. The remainder has been deposited into an overflow account with the Department of Accounting and General Services and is sitting in limbo, something that Senator Kai Kahele pointed out during the 2019 session.
Since April, the Office of Hawaiian Affairs has been working to try and have these funds released for the explicit purpose of COVID-19 direct relief to Native Hawaiians. At the time, because the legislature was in recess, a request was made to Governor David Ige to release the funds through an emergency proclamation. There was no response. Since the legislature has begun limited meetings to address the COVID-19 pandemic, there has been no word from either Senator Donovan Dela Cruz or Representative Sylvia Luke about releasing these funds to the Office of Hawaiian Affairs for COVID-19 relief.
While addressing the immediate threats of COVID-19 and dealing with how to restart the economy while protecting the health and wellbeing of the public is of the utmost importance for state legislators, there is low-lying fruit out there. The funds are there, cannot be used by any other agency or branch of government, and cannot be redistributed to the entities that paid the revenues to the state. The Office of Hawaiian Affairs has put in writing that it will only use the funds for either emergency COVID-19 relief or long-term low-to-no-interest (possibly forgivable) loans for longer-term support for COVID-19 relief. The Office of Hawaiian Affairs has even gone so far as to give assurances that the funds would be distributed by an outside nonprofit, Hawaiʻi Community Foundation, who is already providing these types of services through the Hawaiʻi Resiliency Fund. While the state legislature is looking for funds to make up for the loss in tax revenue due to the economic shut down of the state, these are funds that cannot legally be used for that purpose as they are specifically designated for the betterment of Native Hawaiians.
As we all look to the future and try to return to some semblance of normality, join me and the Office of Hawaiian Affairs as we continue to try and get our legislators to help us help you. Please continue to stay safe, stay healthy and together we can rebound for a better Hawaiʻi for us all.