ANCHORAGE - Republican leaders in the Legislature said they tried to convince Gov. Frank Murkowski not to drop state Natural Commissioner Tom Irwin after he questioned a gasline contract proposal from the state.
They said the Republican governor's decision to ignore their advice could adversely affect future pipeline talks and damage public opinion of the administration.
"I think it is going to have a very negative impact," House Speaker John Harris, a Valdez Republican, said Friday.
Murkowski last week announced Irwin was leaving his job, and six top officials in Irwin's department quit in protest. The governor has said he and Irwin mutually agreed on the resignation.
Irwin's removal came days after he wrote a memo to Attorney General David Marquez saying the governor was making too many concessions in talks with oil companies over taxes and royalties the state would collect if a natural gas pipeline is built from the North Slope to the Lower 48.
Harris told the Anchorage Daily News that top Republican leaders met with Murkowski's senior aides on Thursday shortly before the governor told the public Irwin was resigning.
The legislators, Harris said, told the aides to tell Murkowski that Irwin shouldn't be fired.
"I think we were fairly emphatic. We thought that would ... cause a serious blow to people's feelings about the administration," Harris said.
Other Republicans at the meeting were Senate President Ben Stevens and Rep. Ralph Samuels, both of Anchorage, and House Majority Leader John Coghill and Sen. Gene Therriault, both of North Pole.
The group's message was that firing Irwin would be "counterproductive" because it would result in the loss of Irwin and other good people, Therriault said.
Harris said they met with Murkowski Chief of Staff Jim Clark and Mike Menge, the governor's senior energy adviser who is replacing Irwin as natural resources commissioner.
Lt. Gov. Loren Leman, also a Republican, said Friday he wouldn't have removed Irwin, who he called "one of the most honest, honorable people I know."
Ken Boyd, formerly director of the state Division of Oil and Gas and now an oil industry consultant, said the departures of Irwin and his staff will surely slow down progress toward a gas pipeline contract.
"The word the industry hates the most is uncertainty. Anytime you create uncertainty, it's a cause for delay," he said. "You've taken a few people out of the room there that have a lot of knowledge. If this thing ever gets to the Legislature, somebody has got to present it. And some of the people who would have done that aren't there now."
Murkowski is authorized to cut a deal with the companies by the Stranded Gas Development Act that the Legislature passed in 2003. Harris said he will investigate whether Murkowski violated the intent of that act by removing Irwin.
"The intent was to have the commissioners from all different departments have an equal say in it and not be pushed out," Harris said. "One of the commissioners had a dissenting viewpoint and was pushed out."
Top legislators said the loss of Irwin and the six other department officials will make them take a harder look at whatever gas deal Murkowski asks them to approve. The Legislature could strike down the governor's deal with the oil companies if it decides he has acted improperly.
Murkowski spokeswoman Becky Hultberg said the governor welcomes the increased scrutiny to his gas deal that will come with Irwin's removal.
Whatever deal Murkowski strikes with the oil companies will go out for public review, and ultimately must be approved by the legislature. For now, the negotiations and proposed terms are confidential.
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