By Bobby Harrison/NEMS Daily Journal

JACKSON - Business leaders are more optimistic about the state's economy than the average voters are, but both are concerned about jobs and education, according to polls conducted by the Mississippi Economic Council.

The MEC, the state's chamber of commerce, conducted the polls in conjunction with the Jackson-based Godwin Group.

It showed that 32 percent of business leaders believe the economy is improving and 28 percent believe they will have more employees within the year.

The MEC conducts the survey of business leaders and voters to gauge the economic environment of the state and to ascertain the state's top issues.

The surveys covered 300 business leaders and 300 voters, and both were conducted in November.

It marks the fifth time since 1999 for MEC to conduct similar surveys.

Jobs and the economy were the top issues of 49 percent of business leaders and 50 percent of voters.

Blake Wilson, president of the MEC, said in the last set of surveys conducted in 2007, before the current economic woes, the combined issue education and work force preparedness was the top concern.

This time around education-work force preparedness was gauged as the second most important.

"Nothing else is close," Wilson said.

"These are the issues when you look to the coming election year."

Improving education

The Mississippi Adequate Education Program, which provides the bulk of state money for local school districts, has not been fully funded during the current economic downturn.

But Wilson said it is important to fully fund the program when the economy improves.

MEC Chairman and Tupelo Mayor Jack Reed Jr. said the survey shows the importance Mississippians place on improving education.

Overall, 45 percent of business leaders say Mississippi has made it through the recession better than most of the rest of the nation. Only 20 percent of voters believe that.

Reed said those numbers are actually encouraging.

If businesses are optimistic, they are more inclined to add to their work force, Reed said.

The survey also reveals that 92 percent of business leaders say Mississippi is better or about the same as surrounding states in terms of a place to run a business.

In 2004, that number was 74 percent.

MEC will follow up on the survey with meetings in 20 communities where it will ask similar questions.

The surveys and community meetings are used to develop MEC's priorities in terms of a legislative agenda and overall agenda for the organization.

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