NextEra decision looming, Hawaii lawmakers consider suing Gov. Ige over PUC appointment
Lawmakers in Hawaii are threatening Gov. David Ige (D) with a lawsuit over his move to replace a utility commissioner in advance of a decision on acquisition of Hawaiian Electric Industries (HEI) by NextEra Energy, according to media reports.
Ige replaced Michael Champley, whose term expired June 30, with Thomas Gorak, the chief counsel of the Public Utilities Commission (PUC).
Ige says his action was approved by the state’s attorney general, but some senators say they are considering legal action because the replacement was made without gong through the senate confirmation process.
The proposed billion merger of Hawaiian Electric Co. (HECO) and NextEra has been contentious from the start. Now, with a vote on the $3.4 billion deal expected as soon as this week, Gov. Ige has added fuel to the fire.
Ige's replacement of one of the three PUC commissioners has stoked lawmakers who are calling for legal action. If they follow through, it could prolong a decision on the proposed merger as lawmakers debate the legality of the governor's move.
Critics say Champley should have stayed on beyond the expiration of his term until Hawaii senators return to session and confirm a new commissioner. But Ige said state law allows him to name an interim regulator without consulting the lawmakers.
“We just want to be sure that anyone who is going to sit on the decision as big as the NextEra decision meets all of the legal requirements,” Senate President Ron Kouchi said in a media report. “One remedy is simply to have the courts make a determination.”
If the issue does go to the courts, it could mean further delays for a ruling on the NextEra merger, the largest single business deal in Hawaii history. Gorak has been intimately involved in merger proceedings since the beginning, and wrote a draft decision on the deal that has been circulating privately for about two months, according to KHON. If two of the three commissioners agree on the draft, the decision can be finalized.
Critics of Gov. Ige charge the appointment of Gorak is a move to get his desired outcome from the PUC.
Ige has opposed the merger and about a year ago said he would recommend the PUC disapprove it. Ige has reservations about NextEra’s support of the state’s 100%-by-2045 renewable portfolio standard and opposes plans to import liquefied natural gas as an alternative to oil generation until that time.
Most stakeholders in the merger proceeding have opposed the deal, with the exception of the Hawaii Department of Defense and the local chapter of the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers.
Much of the opposition stems from concerns about Florida Power & Light, a NextEra subsidiary, and its clean energy track record, along with worries that the deal would raise the island's electricity rates, already the highest in the nation.
“I do not know where the votes are in regards to the merger,” Ige told KHON. “I do know that a term will expire today and I believe I’m entitled to make an appointment for July 1, and I exercised my authority.”
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