Following in the footsteps of his predecessor, the late U.S. Sen. Daniel Inouye, U.S. Sen. Brian Schatz pledged Monday to continue pursuing the goal of federal government recognition of Native Hawaiians as an indigenous group, similar to Native Americans and Alaskans.
The so-called Akaka Bill, named after retired U.S. Sen. Daniel Akaka, failed to pass Congress. It aimed to establish a process for indigenous Native Hawaiians to gain recognition similar to an Indian tribe.
The issue of federal recognition of Native Hawaiians is expected to be among those Schatz addresses tonight when he speaks to the Native Hawaiian Chamber of Commerce at the Maui Tropical Plantation.
Speaks out on issues
"We will be talking about treating Native Hawaiians fairly with respect to the way the federal government treats Native Americans generally," he said during a wide-ranging interview at The Maui News. "Native Hawaiians are the only native group that doesn't have a government-to-government relationship acknowledged. And I think it's a matter of basic fairness that the federal government treat Hawaiians on an equal footing with Alaska natives and American Indians.
"I believe that separate is not equal and that Native Hawaiians need to be treated fairly," he said.
How federal recognition eventually translates to sovereignty for Native Hawaiians remains to be seen, he said. Questions about what a Native Hawaiian entity would look like and how independent it ought to be "are for the community to work out," he said.
"And they are very tough issues, and it's fair to say that there is no consensus yet," he said. "But my view is that my kuleana is to articulate and eventually work on that government-to-government relationship."
Although it's difficult to get any legislation through the gridlocked U.S. House of Representatives, Schatz, a Democrat, said that "we do have the ear of the Obama administration in terms of moving forward."
It's important while the Hawaii-born Barack Obama remains in office that "we take advantage of his understanding and sympathy for Hawaii and Native Hawaiians," he said.
Schatz discussed a variety of other issues.
Social Security solvency
Schatz recently joined Democratic Sens. Tom Harkin of Iowa and Mark Begich of Alaska in introducing a bill to strengthen the solvency of the Social Security Trust Fund while still increasing benefits to seniors by about $65 per month.
The average Social Security benefit for Hawaii residents is about $14,000 per year, he said. "That's simply not enough to live on for most folks."
"The debate in Washington has unfortunately been skewed to being almost singularly about cutting Social Security, and my view is that Social Security is the most successful anti-poverty program in American history, and it ought to be enhanced and expanded rather than undermined."
Schatz said the proposal would be paid for by taxing all wages for Social Security instead of capping annual income taxed for the program at nearly $114,000.
Now, someone earning $114,000 a year pays the same amount in Social Security taxes as someone who makes $114 million a year, he said. "And we think that's a flaw in the tax code."
"If we simply lift the cap, we will generate sufficient revenue to keep the program for generations and also to increase the benefit for individuals," he said.
Pacific islands park bill
Schatz said he's "very encouraged" by the progress in the Senate of his proposed bill to direct the National Park Service to complete studies of what areas should be designated as national parks areas.
"The National Park Service can be a real resource to Maui when it comes to public lands preservation, and we want to make sure that as the Department of Interior and National Park Service think about what ought to be in national parks inventory, that we think about so many of our special places on this island," he said.
On Maui, the legislation broadly looks at Maui's north shore from Spreckelsville to Hookipa.
"We feel like we've got . . . support on the Senate side to move this legislation forward," he said.
For Maui's north shore, Schatz said, he sees a "collective interest in preserving that land" from Maui County leaders, nonprofits, landowners and members of the community.
Schatz emphasized that any area being eyed as a national park would need a community consensus.
"We are not interested in moving forward on any project if there is significant community opposition. It's hard enough to get a national park established. There's no need for us to do it over anyone's objections."
Sugar price supports
In May, Schatz and fellow Hawaii U.S. Sen. Mazie Hirono voted to maintain price supports for sugar, a shelter against foreign competition for Hawaiian Commercial & Sugar Co., which employs more than 800 Maui residents.
The supports were included in a farm bill that was passed out of the Senate but got rejected in the House. So far, a revised version of a farm bill has not been agreed on, and the federal government is operating under the status quo, Schatz said.
"Every time there's a farm bill, there's an attempt to eliminate the sugar price supports," he said, "and Mazie and I worked very hard on pushing back against the elimination of these price supports."
The Senate's version of the farm bill included price supports for sugar, he said.
"I will continue to remain an advocate for price supports," Schatz said. "Most other major agriculture industries have some form of price supports, and these don't cost the federal government a penny but they rather smooth out the unpredictable swings in the price of sugar, which would otherwise wipe out not just the jobs on Maui but tens of thousands of jobs across the nation."
Schatz said his proposal to ease some security check procedures at island airports is pending a review by the U.S. Transportation Security Administration and a decision on the matter could come by the end of this year.
"We're very encouraged by their openness to the discussion," he said. "They have to do a fair amount of work to make sure there's no diminishment of the safety of passengers."
Schatz's request is for the TSA to expand its "PreCheck" program to Neighbor Island airports, enabling low-risk passengers to move quickly through checkpoint screenings. "PreCheck" passengers would not need to remove their shoes or outerwear or take out their laptops for screening, for example.
"For a lot of us who travel, it would make life a lot more convenient," he said. "It wouldn't change everything. You're still going to have the same checkpoint, but taking off and putting on shoes and belts and all that would be made a little bit more like it used to be."
On Inouye's legacy
Schatz, Hawaii's former lieutenant governor, was appointed by Gov. Neil Abercrombie to serve as a Hawaii U.S. senator after Inouye's death Dec. 17. Schatz was sworn in Dec. 27.
Schatz said he has tried to honor's the late senator's legacy.
"My admiration for Senator Inouye's legacy and his service and his heroism is deep, and as I interact with my colleagues I learn even more about how well loved he was, universally, (by) every single one of his colleagues, Republican and Democrat," he said. "My approach has been that the best way I can honor his legacy and his service is to work hard, and be humble, and to keep Hawaii's priorities in my heart, and that's what I've been trying to do."
Schatz did not express any uneasiness about one of Inouye's final acts, writing a letter to Abercrombie that his "dying wish" was for the governor to appoint U.S. Rep. Colleen Hanabusa to succeed him. Now, Hanabusa has announced that she will challenge Schatz for Inouye's former seat in 2014.
"I think what we have in this race is an opportunity to define our future," Schatz said. "And I look forward to the discussion with Colleen about what's our preferred future in the state of Hawaii. I'm going to be focusing on middle-class issues, because those are my priority. I'm going to be focusing on opportunities in clean energy, because that means a lot to me.
"I think this race gives a real chance to have a discussion about what kind of leader we want and what kind of future we want. And so I think nothing good ought to come easy, and it's great that people have an opportunity to choose."
According to campaign spending reports filed with the Federal Election Commission, Schatz reported total contributions of $2,029,713 and total disbursements of $378,339. Hanabusa reported total contributions of $731,384 and total disbursements of $133,359.
So far, Schatz said, he has received endorsements from 26 organizations, including many labor and progressive groups as well as former Vice President Al Gore, who praised Schatz's efforts to promote clean energy.
* Brian Perry can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.