Highway architects, Allain held no hard feelings

By Bobby Harrison

Daily Journal Jackson Bureau

JACKSON – Two key legislative architects of the 1987 Four-Lane Highway Program said the fact that then-Gov. Bill Allain vetoed the landmark bill did not lessen their respect for the former governor.

Both John David Pennebaker of New Albany, who was the chair of the House Transportation Committee, and committee co-chair Billy McCoy of Rienzi, spoke glowingly of Allain, who died Monday in a Jackson hospital at age 85.

“The bottom line is that there was no hard feelings against Gov. Allain,” Pennebaker said Monday. “He was a man of conviction and I was a person of my conviction.

“I knew Mississippi and Northeast Mississippi specifically needed that program more than anything in the world.”

The progam is responsible for the four-laning of U.S. Highways 45 and 78 in the region.

McCoy recalled that when the program first was brought up for a vote in the House, he and Pennebaker did not garner the three-fifths majority needed to pass a tax measure. They passed it the following day by one vote, but skeptics questioned how they could get the two-thirds majority needed to override a gubernatorial veto.

Pennebaker said he was feeling good about the passage of the bill when he returned to the Capitol from Northeast Mississippi on Monday only to be informed by then-Speaker C.B. “Buddie” Newman that Allain was vetoing the legislation. The governor had opposed the fuel tax increase to fund the program and wanted thge Highway Commission reorganized.

House rules gave Pennebaker three days to try to override the veto.

Pennebaker said he spoke from the well of the House answering questions for two hours on the third day before the vote was taken and the veto overridden.

But both Pennebaker and McCoy said Allain did not hold a grudge.

When Pennebaker decided to step down, he said Allain called and tried to change his mind.

“He said I had done a good job and as a favor to him he wished I would run for re-election,” Pennebaker recalled.

And McCoy, who went on to serve as speaker of the House from 2004 until 2012, said he would often eat lunch with the former Democratic governor at Wendy’s. They both would order chili.

McCoy remembered that Allain called his and Pennebaker’s efforts to build public support for the massive statewide four-lane program by holding public hearings across the state “a road show.”

Both said they tried to convince Allain to change his mind. Pennebaker said Allain felt the elected highway commission should be appointed, which was one of the primary reasons he opposed the program.

But Pennebaker said the legislation had specific instructions, based on traffic count and other factors, on what highways should be four-laned, taking the discretion from the commission.

In more recent years another Northeast Mississippi Democrat, Public Service Commissioner Brandon Presley, struck up a friendship with Allian.

“I called on him constantly for political advice and he was a walking encyclopedia on the Mississippi Constitution,” Presley said. “He took on the utility companies and was a crusading attorney general.”

Presley said when he was elected mayor of Nettleton Allain called and said it was a tougher job than being governor.

“‘At least a person has to call long distance to complain to the governor,’ he said,” Presley recalled.

bobby.harrison@journalinc.com