Abundant revenue streams mean funds for Native Hawaiian programs

HONOLULU (AP) — Hawaiian lawmakers are set to commit $600 million to a long-underfunded program providing housing and land leases to Native Hawaiians as they wrap up the current legislative session this week.

The allocations come after Hawaii tourism and state tax revenue rebounded from a crash in the COVID-19 pandemic. Lawmakers recorded a general fund surplus of $2 billion this year instead of a huge shortfall.

In accordance with Hawaiian law, they pay a portion of the bonus directly to taxpayers: $300 will go to people who earned less than $100,000 a year in 2021 and couples who earned less than $200,000. Individuals and couples who have won more than these amounts will receive $100.

House and Senate lawmakers are expected to pass the reimbursement legislation in floor votes on Tuesday.

The $600 million for Native Hawaiian Housing will help those eligible under the Hawaiian Homes Commission Act of 1920.

The century-old law was intended to help Hawaiians be economically self-sufficient by providing them with land. People with at least 50% Hawaiian blood quantum can apply for a 99-year lease for $1 per year.

But Hawaii has been slow to award leases, and the waiting list for properties has more than 28,000 names.

Surveys by the Department of Hawaiian Home Lands have indicated that some on the waiting list may instead get help with a down payment to buy a home on the market instead of signing a lease, so part of the allowance will go to that.

Rep. Sylvia Luke, chair of the House Finance Committee, said lawmakers have a moral obligation to make a massive commitment to help Native Hawaiians this session.

“If we don’t do it when we have a surplus, when are we going to do it?” Luke said last month during a Zoom “talk story” session with the Council on Native Hawaiian Advancement.

State Sen. Jarrett Keohokalole, co-chair of the Native Hawaiian Caucus, called the funding “historic.”

People should expect to see major home construction on Hawaiian land in the next five years, he said. Those who would prefer help with a down payment might be able to buy a home on the housing market immediately instead of waiting for a ground lease, he said.

“It’s going to be important for the next governor to put together a team in the Hawaiian Lands Department to make sure that money isn’t wasted,” Keohokalole said.

Governor David Ige’s second term ends in December and he is not eligible to run for a third term.

In addition to funding and legislation for other Native Hawaiian issues this session, Keohokalole said lawmakers have taken the most significant action for the Hawaiian community in 100 years.

Lawmakers are also investing $500 million in the state’s Rainy Day Fund for emergencies. Ige had proposed putting $1 billion into it at the start of the session, but lawmakers balked at that amount.

The fund had $395 million available in May 2020 when lawmakers attacked it for balancing the budget during the pandemic.

This year, the budget also includes $115 million in federal coronavirus relief funds to build statewide broadband infrastructure and $33 million in state funds to further expand broadband.

The flush coffers also allowed lawmakers to fund programs that hadn’t received money in years, such as $26 million to pay for adult dental care for Medicare patients. Lawmakers had to cut funding for it when incomes crashed during the Great Recession and have not been able to restore it since.