State economist: Virus pandemic ‘like slamming on the brakes’ of state economy, predicts long, slow recovery

Published 2:16 pm Tuesday, May 26, 2020

Mississippi can expect a long, slow economic recovery from the shock of job losses and the steep decline in commercial activity tied to the coronavirus pandemic, state economist Darrin Webb told legislators Tuesday.

At the beginning of this year, the U.S. economy, and to a lesser extent the Mississippi economy, were doing “quite well,” Webb said.

Then, businesses were forced to close because of government orders aimed at slowing the spread of the virus.

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“This is like slamming on the brakes for the economy,” Webb said.

At the end of 2019, Mississippi’s gross domestic product was just short of the level it had been when the Great Recession began in 2008, Webb said. He predicted it could be 2023 before the state reaches that 2008 level again for jobs and economic activity.

Republican Sen. Philip Moran of Kiln said he’s concerned that some people who are collecting $600 a week in federal unemployment benefits will choose not to return to work because their jobs would pay them less than the unemployment. Webb said that’s possible.

“They do want to work,” Webb said, “but they also respond to market forces.”

Mississippi legislators will spend the next few weeks deciding whether to trim state agencies’ budgets for the year that ends June 30.

They also must set a new budget for the year that begins July 1.

Mississippi tax collections exceeded expectations for the first eight months of the budget year but have fallen sharply. The state also delayed its income tax filing deadline from April 15 until July 15, which means some money that should be collected during the current budget year will be collected in the coming year.

The commissioner of the state Department of Revenue, Herb Frierson, told legislators Tuesday that they could play a “shell game” by counting the anticipated income tax collections from the first two weeks of July as part of the overall revenue for the budget year that ends June 30.

Lt. Gov. Delbert Hosemann said Tuesday that he, House Speaker Philip Gunn and the Senate and House Appropriations Committee chairmen sent state agency directors a letter in late April telling them to find ways to save money before June 30. Hosemann said agencies were not required to submit documents showing how they might make cuts but “I hope they recognized it was serious business.”

Speaking of budget writing, Hosemann told reporters: “We’re fixing to have the most difficult decisions I think have been made in the state of Mississippi, certainly in the last 100 years.”

The state Health Department said Tuesday that Mississippi — with a population of about 3 million — had at least 13,731 confirmed cases and 652 deaths from the coronavirus as of Monday evening. That was an increase of 273 cases and 17 deaths from the numbers reported a day earlier. The deaths reported Tuesday included eight that occurred between May 13 and May 18; those were counted after the department received death certificates.

The number of coronavirus infections is thought to be far higher because many people have not been tested, and studies suggest people can be infected with the virus without feeling sick. For most people, the coronavirus causes mild or moderate symptoms, such as fever and cough. For others, especially older adults and people with existing health problems, it can cause severe symptoms and be fatal.

The Health Department said Tuesday at least 1,727 cases of the virus have been confirmed in long-term care facilities such as nursing homes, with at least 332 virus-related deaths in those facilities.

The department said Tuesday that more than 154,624 coronavirus tests had been conducted in Mississippi as of Monday. More more than 6,800 of those were blood tests that detect whether a person has antibodies that usually show up after an infection is resolved.