By EMILY WAGSTER PETTUS
JACKSON, Miss. (AP) - Mississippi's economy is growing at a modest pace but continues to lag behind the national average, an expert told lawmakers Thursday.
State economist Darrin Webb said Mississippi presented a report packed with statistics. It showed Mississippi was one of eight states that with a lower employment rate in December 2016 than in December 2007, the starting point of the Great Recession.
"Since 2000, we've struggled to gain momentum," Webb said of Mississippi's non-farm employment.
The state had the second-lowest workforce participation rate in the nation in 2016. Only 56 percent of Mississippi residents who are 16 are older were working or actively looking for a job. The national average was nearly 63 percent. Webb said only West Virginia, at 53 percent, had a worse rate than Mississippi.
The only demographic group in Mississippi with a workforce participation rate higher than the national average was women aged 35 to 44.
Mississippi's population is also growing more slowly than that of the nation or the Southeast.
"People tend to go where the economic opportunities are," Webb said.
Mississippi's strongest burst of growth in recent years was in 2008, when the economy expanded 4.1 percent. It contracted 4.1 percent in 2009. The state has not experienced two consecutive years of growth since 2008, according to numbers that were current through 2015. Webb said the state economy grew by 0.5 percent in 2015 and performed well during the first nine months 2016 but was bumpy in the final three months.
Tax collections have fallen short of expectations during the state budget year that started in July, and Republican Gov. Phil Bryant has had to make two rounds of spending cuts.
Bryant, who was not at the economic briefing, told reporters later Thursday that he doesn't know whether he will have to make more cuts.
"If it appears that we will not have sufficient revenues coming in, I will make sufficient cuts to balance the budget or draw upon the rainy day fund," Bryant said. "That's a simple act of the executive branch here, and if we have to do that again, we'll have to do it."
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PHOTO: In this 2015 file photo, State Economist Darrin Webb speaks about the revised tax estimates before a meeting of the Joint Legislative Budget Committee at the Capitol in Jackson, Miss., Wednesday, March 25, 2015. (AP Photo/Rogelio V. Solis)