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Hearings to begin on state budget

Residents around the state will have a chance to listen in as legislators debate Governor Deval Patrick’s $34.8 billion budget proposal at a series of public hearings set to kick off Wednesday.

The hearings on the fiscal 2014 budget, run by the Legislature’s Joint Committee on Ways and Means, begin in Worcester and Greenfield and return to the Boston area next week with a Feb. 27 session at South Shore Vocational Technical High School in Hanover. Residents will have a chance to speak at the end of each hearing, if time allows.

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Patrick’s budget proposal, released last month, boosts spending to most state programs after years of cutbacks, relying on an increase in the income tax rate to 6.25 percent, from 5.25 percent. His plan would simultaneously decrease the sales tax from 6.25 to 4.5 percent.

The House is expected to release its version of the budget in mid-April; the Senate will follow in May.

Republicans have criticized the plan as fiscally irresponsible, and compromise is expected by the time a final budget deal is hammered out, before the new fiscal year begins on July 1.

Representative Stephen Kulik, vice chairman of the House Ways and Means Committee, said the hearings give legislators a chance to dig deeper into the governor’s proposal, “to ask probing questions and see what he is trying to achieve.

“By doing this around the state we can better inform the public, and they can see the process,” said Kulik, a Worthington Democrat.

‘By doing this around the state we can better inform the public, and they can see the process.’

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Each session will focus on a different area of the budget. Wednesday’s hearing in Worcester will address public safety, beginning at 10 a.m. at Worcester State University. Additional hearings are scheduled on education Feb. 26 at Greenfield Community College and on environment, energy, and transportation Feb. 27 at the technical high school in Hanover.

Two hearings will be held on health and human services: Feb. 28 at Montachusett Technical School in Fitchburg and March 4 at Arlington Town Hall. A hearing on economic development and housing will be held March 7 at Everett High School.

Members of the public are welcome at all of the hearings and will be allowed to speak if there is time, Kulik said, but their best chance to weigh in on the budget will come at a final public hearing on March 8 at the State House.

That all-day hearing will be set aside for residents to address legislators on any aspect of state spending.

Patrick’s proposals include doubling the personal income tax exemption while eliminating dozens of income tax deductions and several corporate tax breaks.

He would extend the reach of the sales tax to candy and ­soda, items that are currently exempt, and increase the state tax on cigarettes by $1.

Spending on transportation would increase by $269 million, education spending would grow by $553 million, and cities and towns would receive about $31 million more in local aid.

Jenna Russell can be reached at jrussell@globe.com.
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