NBC News/SurveyMonkey poll: Mississippians worried about state economy
Alex Rozier, Mississippi Today
JACKSON — Mississippi residents have a significantly more pessimistic view of their state’s economic conditions than residents of other Southern states, according to a poll released Thursday by NBC News and SurveyMonkey in collaboration with Mississippi Today.
The findings, reflected in some of the most extensive independent polls conducted in the South in years, shows that 49 percent of Mississippians rate the state’s economy as “fairly bad” or “very bad,” a statistically even split with the 47 percent who rate the economy as “fairly good” or “very good.”
Those results compare to just 28 percent of respondents in the broader Southern states poll who said that their own state’s economy is fairly or very bad — a response rate that is 21 percentage points lower than the concerns expressed about the economy by respondents in Mississippi.
The online polls were conducted March 12-25 of 1,486 people in Mississippi and 4,132 respondents in 11 Southern states. The error estimate for the Mississippi results is plus or minus 4.6 percentage points and plus or minus 2.4 percent for the Southern states poll.
Another key finding: Despite concerns about the state economy, a strong majority say they would support paying higher taxes for infrastructure improvements and to support public education.
Worries about the state’s economic conditions signal that the general public is not as optimistic about economic conditions as many of the state’s top leaders, who repeatedly cite signs of economic progress such as the lowest unemployment rate in history and the attraction to the state of manufacturing jobs, particularly in the auto-related industry.
The economy is clearly on the minds of state residents. Asked to list their top personal concerns, 31 percent chose the economy, with health care (23 percent) and education (15 percent) included in the top three concerns. Those top concerns mirror results found in the Southern states poll.
And state residents say they expect state leaders to address economic conditions, with 33 percent saying that should be the state government’s top priority, followed by education (30 percent) and healthcare (18 percent). Business groups and many state leaders often tie the state’s economic future to the education level of state residents, saying a more highly educated workforce is essential to attracting more jobs to the state.
Republicans have controlled most state government functions during the past seven years, with elected GOP leaders touting economic gains and spearheading tax policies, including the largest tax cut in state history, that they say will improve the state’s economy long term.
The poll revealed a clear difference of opinion between Republicans and Democrats in how they view the state economy. Sixty-five percent of Republicans who were polled rated the economy as good, compared to just 33 percent of Democrats. Inversely, 67 percent of Democrats rated the economy as bad, with 36 percent of Republicans holding that view.
In the state with the lowest median household income and the highest rate of poverty in the nation, Gov. Phil Bryant routinely touts the state’s lowest-ever unemployment rate, the state’s success in economic development — particularly automotive and tire manufacturing — and the jobs available in the state.
“It’s the lowest unemployment has been in Mississippi’s history,” Bryant told members of the Mississippi Economic Council in January. “We have 40,000 jobs open in this state. We used to have people looking for jobs, but now we have jobs chasing people.”
The state’s unemployment rate dipped to 4.5 percent in February, which is the lowest rate since data was tracked. That figure means Mississippi unemployment ranked 33rd lowest in the nation that month. However, fewer people are working in the state than in January 2008, the peak of employment before the Great Recession.
One example of the tax incentive strategy state leaders have employed came in 2016 when the Legislature offered a tax incentive and bond deal to Continental Tire, which will invest $1.45 billion in the state and is expected to create 2,500 full-time jobs at a plant near Clinton. Mississippi will issue $263 million in bonds to the Germany-based company, and an Associated Press estimate suggests the project will cost the state $600 million in all, including tax incentives.
Lt. Gov. Tate Reeves and House Speaker Philip Gunn have spearheaded numerous tax cuts and tax incentive packages that they say will help the state’s economy in the long run. In 2016, they spearheaded efforts in the Legislature to pass the largest single tax cut in state history, eliminating the corporate franchise tax and the 3 percent individual income tax bracket.
“The tax cuts were never about increasing our revenue, although I will tell you I believe in the long term they will, in fact, have that effect,” Reeves told reporters in January. “The tax cuts were more about improving Mississippi’s competitiveness in recruiting new business for our state and in growing our existing businesses.”
Meanwhile, the state’s economy has grown modestly the past three years, but much slower than the national average and any Southern state.
“The result of this lack of momentum is that our recovery following the Great Recession has been one of the worst in the nation,” Darrin Webb, the state economist, told lawmakers in late 2017. “Between the bottom of the recession in 2009 and 2016, the state grew only 1.7 percent compared to the national growth of 14.1 percent. The southeast region, excluding Mississippi grew 16.9 percent. Our border states grew 8.2 percent. These data are for real GDP, and if we looked at employment or income, we would see a similar pattern of relatively flat growth over the past seven years.”
The poll revealed interesting thinking among Mississippians on two topics that have dominated discussion in the Legislature and among businessmen and state residents: roads and schools.
Legislative leaders focused the 2018 legislative session on locating additional funds for maintenance of the state’s roads and bridges.
Of those polled in Mississippi, 61 percent said state government was doing a poor job in maintaining roads and bridges. Fifty percent of Republicans polled said the state was doing a poor job, while 49 percent said the state was doing a good job. Among Democrats, just 25% said the state is doing a good job in that area.
Respondents from other states have a more optimistic view on how their state is maintaining roads and bridges, with 56 percent of respondents in the South poll saying their state government is doing a good job maintaining roads, bridges and other infrastructure, while just 36 percent of Mississippi respondents say the same — a 20 percentage point difference.
One idea floated this session was to increase the state’s gasoline tax to provide more funding for road improvements, which some Republican lawmakers supported but legislative leaders strongly opposed.
Mississippians showed a nearly 2-to-1 willingness to pay more taxes in order to fund better infrastructure, according to the poll: 62 percent of Mississippians responding said that they were willing to pay more taxes, while 36 percent were not. Interestingly, of those who were unwilling to pay more in taxes for infrastructure, 38 percent were Democrats and just 33 percent were Republicans.
The willingness of Mississippi respondents to pay higher taxes for roads exceeds the response across the South, with 56 percent voicing support for raising taxes to address infrastructure issues.
Another key issue for Republican leaders the past two years has been rewriting the state’s public education funding formula. This year the Senate was unable to pass a new funding formula approved by the House after public school activists and public school leaders questioned whether local school districts would have to raise local taxes to offset any state funding losses.
According to the poll, 60 percent of Mississippians said they were willing to pay more taxes for public schools, while 37 percent said they were unwilling. That is similar to the Southern poll result, which showed 57 percent of respondents would be willing to pay higher taxes to support public education. The Mississippi poll showed that 50 percent of Republicans and 62 percent of Democrats were willing to pay more taxes to support public education.
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