So let me try to understand SB 249 SD2 HD1, “Relating to Retirement.”
A concise history.
For decades, the State Legislature ignored its constitutional responsibility to provide sufficient funding for the Department of Hawaiian Home Lands and its Native Hawaiian beneficiaries.
In 2012, the Hawaii Supreme Court found the legislature in violation of its constitutional duties.
Instead of fixing the problem then, on its initiative and its own terms, legislative leaders continued to blow off both the court’s ruling and its duties to Hawaiians, forcing a state judge to put dollar sign on the ambiguous term, “sufficient” funding.
Suddenly, legislative leaders are outraged. Not by the realization that they’ve shafted Hawaiians for decades, but by the courts calling them out on their unconstitutional actions.
And the next thing you know, there’s a series of mystery bills with no public backing targeting judges for various forms of retaliation.
No explanations are offered, no reasons given, but each bill would have extracted a significant amount of pain from the Judiciary as a whole, and from individual judges. Privately, the scuttlebutt is that the bills are in direct retaliation for the court decisions in the DHHL case, a message that may have been conveyed privately by legislative leaders or their cut-outs.
And that brings us to SB249, now pending in conference and facing likely passage, which singles out judges for a 33% cut in retirement benefits.
This anti-Judiciary bill has gotten all the way to conference despite the absence of any public explanation or rationale from those who introduced the bills, any evidence of a problem it is intended to fix, and in the face of virtually uniform opposition from the Judiciary, from current and retired judges and justices, from the legal community, from public sector unions, from public interest groups, and from individuals.
For those not familiar with the Department of Hawaiian Home Lands, here’s a bit more context.
So back in 1921, the federal government set aside land to be administered by the Hawaiian Homes Commission, intended to “rehabilitate” native Hawaiians by creating a homesteading program of long term leases at low cost to qualified Hawaiians.
Over the years, the program suffered from lack of resources and growing need. The waiting list for land kept growing, with tens of thousands of Hawaiians duly registered and waiting.
At statehood, the program (and the commission) were transferred to the state’s Department of Hawaiian Home Lands.
The lists of those registered beneficiaries kept growing, people were spending decades on the waiting list, many dying while waiting for leases. Meanwhile, thousands of acres were being leased out to private interests, ostensibly to create income to fund the Hawaiian Home Lands program.
There were protests and investigations through the 1970s.
Then in 1978, in response, voters approved amendments to the Hawaii State Constitution creating the Office of Hawaiian Affairs and requiring the legislature to provide “sufficient” funding for operating DHHL.
Despite the constitutional changes requiring funding, the Department of Hawaiian Home Lands said they were forced to pursue an aggressive development plan, “from hundreds of time-share units on Kauai to a marina, 400 hotel rooms and over 1,000 time-shares at Honokohau in the island of Hawaii,” in order to provide income to fund its larger homestead programs. This program of commercial leases continues in Kapolei and elsewhere today.
Here’s part of a column I wrote back in 2008:
But funding for DHHL has remained a low priority despite its constitutionally protected status, the suit alleges. It was not until 1987, after the election of Gov. John Waihee, that the Legislature first appropriated any general funds for the operations of DHHL. General fund appropriations peaked at $4.2 million in 1992.
Last year, the Legislature appropriated less than $1.5 million in general revenue to DHHL, while the Hawaii Tourism Authority, which is not constitutionally mandated, increased its state funding to $87 million.
Then in 2012, the Hawaii Supreme Court issued its ruling that found the legislature had violated the constitution by failing to provide sufficient funds to DHHL.
And here we are.
“Intermediate court: Hawaiian funding provision can be enforced,” January 2011.”
“Senate bills hit judges in retaliation for court ruling on Hawaiian Homes funding“, March 2016
“It’s Time To Quit Playing Politics With Judges“, March 2016
“Hawaii Lawmakers Needlessly Renew Assault On The Judiciary“, January 2017.