Mississippi Gov. Phil Bryant poses for photographers as he and Nissan North America Inc., chairman Denis Le Vot, sit inside the redesigned Altima following its unveiling at the Nissan Vehicle Assembly Plant in Canton, Miss., Thursday, Sept. 27, 2018.

State Economist Darrin Webb told legislative leaders during a September budget hearing more of the same – the Mississippi economy is not doing as well as the national economy.

“The state’s economy has struggled to gain the momentum in the years since the Great Depression,” which started in 2008, Webb said, echoing his comments from recent, previous meetings with legislative leaders.

“Growth remains below that of the nation, but we are at least observing continued if relatively small increases in real GDP (gross domestic product) and employment.”

As an example of the slow growth in the state, the number of people with jobs did not surpass the pre-recession level until earlier this year when employment hit 1.164 million. Employment has continued to climb in most months since then and was at 1.170 million for August, according to the federal Bureau of Labor Statistics.

But Mississippi’s struggles to employ people did not begin with the Great Recession. Interestingly, the number of jobs recorded in early 2008 before the recession hit was the same level recorded in 2000, before an earlier recession hit the state in the early 2000s. The state did not regain the same number of jobs again until that pre-recession peak in 2008.

Regardless of what the employment numbers or the state economist might say, Mississippians’ opinions are almost evenly split on the health of the state economy, according to an NBC News/SurveyMonkey poll released Tuesday. Poll results reveal 50 percent of Mississippians find the economy very good or fairly good and 49 percent saying it is fairly bad or very bad.

According to the poll, 52 percent of Mississippians approve of the job of President Donald Trump with 35 percent strongly approving and 46 percent disapproving (37 percent strongly disapproving.)

Trump’s relatively strong level of support (compared to his national average) comes despite concerns, especially among many Mississippi farmers, over tariffs he has imposed on various items and the retaliatory tariffs imposed by other countries, especially China on Mississippi soybeans.

Webb said the impact of the tariffs already has been considered in making his economic forecast of more of the same – slow but steady growth for the state.

“The momentum of the economy was expected to sustain those tariffs with minimal impact,” Webb said. But Webb said he has not yet considered the impact of new tariffs imposed last month on $200 billion of Chinese goods.

“Obviously, tariffs are not good for the economy nor is the uncertainty that is created by the back and forth threats between the U.S. and its trading partners,” Webb said.

An area where many believe tariffs could have an impact is in the auto industry. Mississippi has become dependent on the auto industry with a Nissan plant in Canton, which recently announced an expansion, and a Toyota plant in Blue Springs in northeast Mississippi.

According to information compiled by the Mississippi Economic Council, the auto industry (the two auto plants and their suppliers) employs 18,250 people in the state at an average salary of $50,520, compared to the state average of $37.642, based on a 2017 study.

Based on the impact of the tariffs, especially on steel and aluminum, Toyota spokeswoman Emily Wilemon-Holland said in a statement: “Toyota’s procurement philosophy has always been to build where we sell and to buy where we build. In fact, about 90 percent of the steel and aluminum we directly purchase is from right here in the U.S.

“Nonetheless, the administration’s decision to impose substantial steel and aluminum tariffs will adversely impact automakers, the automotive supplier community and consumers as this would substantially raise costs and therefore prices of cars and trucks sold in America. Our position reflects that of the auto industry, supply chain, trade associations and others. The impact of the proposed tariffs would be profound and ultimately hurt consumers.”

Lloryn Love-Carter, a spokesperson with Nissan, said: “We are evaluating the total impact, but we are concerned that new tariffs could make vehicles less affordable for American customers.”

Of the re-negotiated North American Free Trade Agreement with Canada and Mexico announced by President Trump, Love-Carter said, “We’re encouraged than an agreement was reached and hope that it appropriately considers the impact on our employees, suppliers and customers. We look forward to learning more details of that agreement.”

Gov. Phil Bryant who touts the state’s unemployment rate of 4.8 percent in August (one of the lowest rates on record) has strong approval ratings, according to the poll, with 67 percent approval (with 21 percent strongly approving) and 32 percent strongly or somewhat disapproving (with 18 percent somewhat disapproving.)

The Legislature has a 55 percent approval rating (with 50 percent somewhat approving) and 42 percent disapproval; among them, 13 percent strongly disapprove, the poll results show.

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Bobby Harrison, Mississippi Today’s senior capitol reporter, covers politics, government and the Mississippi State Legislature. He also writes a weekly news analysis which is co-published in newspapers statewide. A native of Laurel, Bobby joined our team June 2018 after working for the North Mississippi Daily Journal in Tupelo since 1984. He is president of the Mississippi Capitol Press Corps Association and works with the Mississippi State University Stennis Institute to organize press luncheons. Bobby has a bachelor's in American Studies from the University of Southern Mississippi and has received multiple awards from the Mississippi Press Association, including the Bill Minor Best Investigative/In-depth Reporting and Best Commentary Column.