NEW YORK (AP) -- CenterPoint Energy Inc. is paying just under $6 billion for rival Vectren in a move that will expand the utility operator's reach.

The combined company will serve more than 7 million gas and electricity customers in eight states and will hold about $29 billion in assets. CenterPoint will pay $72 per share cash for Vectren and assume the company's debt.

Houston-based CenterPoint has natural gas operations in Arkansas, Louisiana, Minnesota, Mississippi, Oklahoma, and Texas. It has delivers electricity in the Houston area. It currently employs nearly 8,000 people.

Evansville, Indiana-based Vectren Corp. provides natural gas in Indiana and Ohio, along with electricity in Indiana. It employs about 5,500 people.

The deal is expected to close in the first quarter of 2019.

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