At the same time legislators quibbled about an $18 monthly increase for Arizona's welfare mothers, House Speaker Jane Hull hired a media spin doctor--at a salary of $4,500 a month.

Jack Lavelle, who covered the legislature for eight years at the Phoenix Gazette, has been at his new job as House press aide for three weeks now.

So, other than composing press releases, what does Lavelle's new job entail?

Not even Lavelle can answer that. "We're trying to figure out the parameters of it as we go along," he says.

Lavelle, 43, is paid $54,000 a year under the terms of a contract that's renewable every three months. "If they don't love me after three months," he says, "then I'm vapor."

Some legislators wish he were already vapor.
"If we need an intermediary to defuse, distort or otherwise color the events of this body, then something is wrong," says Mike Palmer, a Democrat from Bisbee. "You don't need a strainer of information."

Palmer says it's crazy for taxpayers to pay for a press liaison to prevent them from talking one-on-one with their elected officials. Hull did not return telephone calls. But Rick Collins, House chief of staff, justifies Lavelle's hiring by explaining that three staff positions have been unfilled for several months. This means there was enough money, he says, to hire Lavelle as the first full-time House press secretary.

Not all of Hull's fellow Republicans are thrilled with the idea, however, and legislators in both parties say they weren't consulted. "I think it sets a bad example," says Stan Barnes, a Republican from Mesa. Barnes says he's a fiscal conservative and points to his vote against the welfare increase in last week's special session as proof. (The $18 increase, by the way, passed.)

Barnes says he had heard talk about creating the press position during Republican caucus meetings, but he didn't know the decision had been made.

But Barnes does contend that the House needs what he calls "positive press." And he says he might not complain about spending money on a high-priced press aide if Lavelle gets the House some good headlines.

House Democrats have another reason to carp about Lavelle's hire: He isn't working for them. And they don't have enough money in their allowance to pay for a spin doctor of their own even if they thought they needed one, says Mike Palmer.

Eleanor Schorr, a Tucson Democrat who has pestered House leadership about the chronic shortage of independent experts to help lawmakers draft complex bills, is willing to be gracious about Lavelle's new job. Sort of. "I wish Jack Lavelle Godspeed," she says, "and I'm sure he will do an effective job in what's he hired to do, whatever that is. I would have done something else with the money."

"If they don't love me after three months, then I'm vapor.

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Ellen Grant