The prospects for one of Gov. David Ige’s most significant appointments appeared uncertain Thursday.
Tom Gorak’s nomination to serve on the state Public Utilities Commission was submitted to the state Senate last month and referred to Sen. Roz Baker’s Committee on Commerce, Consumer Protection and Health on March 29.
As of Thursday, however, Baker had not scheduled Gorak for a confirmation hearing, and the time to do so this legislative session is running out.
Out of hundreds of gubernatorial nominations this session — most of them already confirmed — Gorak’s is one of only two that had not been scheduled for public consideration as of Thursday.
A Senate spokeswoman said the nomination will be heard and that the deadline is not until May 1. The 2017 legislative session concludes three days later.
The delay has raised concerns that the nomination may be in jeopardy, given the unusual history Gorak has with the PUC.
In June, one day before the term of Commissioner Mike Champley was set to expire, Ige replaced him on an interim basis with Gorak, who had served as the commission’s chief legal counsel since 2013.
The move drew fire because it came shortly before the three-member body was expected to release its final decision on the proposed $4.3 billion deal to sell Hawaiian Electric Industries to Florida-based NextEra Energy.
Gorak recused himself from the vote, which came in mid-July when commissioners Lorraine Akiba and Randy Iwase rejecting the deal. Gorak has continued to serve on the PUC on an interim basis since then.
Ige publicly opposed the NextEra purchase of HEI, which runs the electric utilities for three of Hawaii’s four counties.
The governor did not believe the Florida-based company was committed to Hawaii’s goal to reduce its dependency on imported fuel and move to a clean-energy future despite NextEra’s assurances to the contrary.
A Contested Pick
Ige’s interim appointment of Gorak prompted a legal challenge and pitted powerful supporters and opponents of the NextEra deal against each other.
Senate President Ron Kouchi asked Attorney General Doug Chin to issue a formal opinion on whether the governor had the legal authority to name Gorak. Chin’s opinion backed Ige’s action.
It’s not clear whether lingering bad feelings from the rejection of the NextEra deal are imperiling Gorak’s bid to continue serving on the PUC until June 2022. He did not return a call Thursday seeking comment, and Iwase, the PUC chairman, also had no comment.
Gorak’s resume states that he has gained “national recognition for his expertise for matters concerning the utility industry.”
Asked whether Gorak’s nomination might be in trouble, a spokeswoman for the Governor’s Office said, “As far as we know, the process is continuing.”
Baker’s committee has seven members. Even if Gorak fails to win approval from a majority of the panel, his nomination would still go to the full Senate for a final vote — assuming a committee hearing is held first.
If Gorak is not confirmed, he would have to step down from the PUC by May 4.
This would mark only the second time an Ige appointment has had any trouble securing Senate confirmation.
In March 2015, Ige had to pull his nomination of Carleton Ching to head the Department of Land and Natural Resources after the governor realized he did not have the votes in the Senate for confirmation. Opponents, including many environmentalists, were concerned about Ching’s development background.
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