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Public hearings to be held on Doyle's budget; one in Eau Claire

The state Legislature's Joint Finance Committee will start hearing from Wisconsinites later this month about the governor's proposed state budget.

The panel will hold day-long public hearings March 23 in Sparta, March 25 in West Allis, March 27 in Eau Claire, March 30 in Racine, April 1 in Appleton, and April 3 in Cambridge.

The two-year budget includes a host of tax and fee increases, economic stimulus money and numerous policy changes.

They're designed to cover a shortfall in revenues that grew to $5.9 billion the day after Doyle submitted his package Feb. 17.

Among the most controversial items are a statewide public indoor smoking ban, early releases of non-violent felons from prison, a registration system for domestic partners to get benefits, and the ending of a safeguard which avoids wasteful spending in state contracts.

The budget produced a couple of new controversies just this week.

It was revealed that funding for stop-smoking programs would drop, even as the cigarette tax goes up 75 cents a pack.

Proposed cuts in the numbers of tax auditors were questioned, after it was learned that overdue state taxes exceeded $1 billion for the first time.

And on Mark Belling's Milwaukee radio talk show Wednesday, Sen. Mike Ellis, R-Neenah, slammed a budget proposal to unionize home care workers, saying the added costs would drive more seniors into nursing homes.