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Expert: State's economic recovery hard to gauge

JACKSON — Legislators hoping for some news to cheer about Mississippi’s economy received a more cautious report instead from experts yesterday.

State economist Darrin Webb said it’s difficult to pinpoint exactly when Mississippi entered the recession, which started nationally in Dec. 2007, or whether the state has begun seeing significant improvement.

“The question is: Are we in recovery? If we are in recovery, it is very weak — much more so than the nation,” Webb told members of the Joint Legislative Budget Committee.

Public and private employment in Mississippi dropped 6.6 percent between Feb. 2008 and last month, Webb said. That was a loss of 78,000 jobs.

He also said the number of people working in Mississippi now is the same as in 1996, and it could be 2015 before employment hits pre-recession levels.

Housing starts in the state — another sign of economic health — are 60 percent below the second quarter of 2005, just before Hurricane Katrina.

Legislative leaders heard the economic report as part of their early planning for the budget year that begins next July.

Ed Morgan, head of the state Department of Revenue, said he’s “cautiously optimistic” about tax collections, which beat expectations in July and August.

Morgan said the state collected $19 million more during the first 23 days of this month than it did for the same period in 2009. But he said it takes more than a couple months’ data to declare a trend.

House Speaker Billy McCoy, D-Rienzi, said he travels the state frequently and asks people what they think about their own prospects and about the shape of the state economy.

“Your cautious optimism is right on track from what I’ve seen and heard,” McCoy said.

Among the agency leaders making budget presentations Thursday was Commissioner of Public Safety Steve Simpson. He said he understands money is tight but it’s critical for lawmakers to fund another new class of state troopers. If a trooper is on patrol alone and needs help, the next one available could be 30 or 40 miles away, Simpson said.

“Bad guys are everywhere, quite frankly,” Simpson said.

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