JACKSON – Political friends and foes alike lauded the legislative career of House Speaker Billy McCoy after he announced Wednesday he would not seek re-election this year.
McCoy, who influenced major legislation for more than 30 years, the last eight as speaker, made the announcement in a news release. He said it was time for him to spend “more time in the beautiful foothills of the Appalachians with my family and friends.”
As they heard of his decision, state officials praised McCoy for his eight terms of legislative work.
“He will be missed in the process,” said Rep. Steve Holland, D-Plantersville. “His legislative career has been pretty renaissanced. … He is not surpassed by anyone. The man has one of the most spectacular legislative resumes in the annals of Mississippi history.”
He has played key roles in major pieces of legislation dating back to 1987 with the passage of the Four-Lane Highway Act, which is still touted today by business leaders. He also was deeply involved in the Adequate Education Program in the 1990s and the Advantage Mississippi Program, which helped lure major industry to the state in the 2000s.
“I think if the role Billy McCoy played in the 1987 Four-Lane Program is all he ever did in his legislative career, which obviously it is not, it would have been worth his years of service,” said Central District Transportation Commissioner Dick Hall, a Republican who served with McCoy in the House in the 1980s.
There has been speculation for months about whether McCoy, 68, would seek a ninth term in the House and third term as speaker. He announcement came later than most expected. The deadline for candidates to qualify to run for legislative seats is Wednesday.
He made his announcement via a news release. He did not meet with reporters.
“With a humble heart I thank my family for their faithful support during more than 40 years of public service,” McCoy said in the news release. “I thank the voters of District 3 for their many votes for us, and I want to thank my colleagues in the House for bestowing their highest honor on me as their speaker.”
He also thanked the two speakers under whom he served – the late C.B. “Buddie” Newman and Tim Ford – “for placing me in legislative positions to learn the process.”
McCoy has dealt with a series of health problems in recent years, but he said in the news release that his health wasn’t an issue in his decision not to seek re-election.
Before being elected, McCoy worked as an auditor for the state Department of Audit. Before then, he was an educator and worked as a loan officer for the Farmers Home Administration.
When elected to the House, he had to give up his job with the state. He became a farmer, raising various crops, including worms. His political opponents often tried to belittle him as a “worm farmer,” but he spoke proudly of the successful niche vocation he found to supplement his legislative pay.
Of McCoy’s retirement, Rep. George Flaggs, D-Vicksburg, said, “He made the right decision at the right time in his life. In my opinion, he was a great leader of the state. He has done what he has always done – put the people and the institution of the House – before himself. He has always stood up for transportation, education and health care in the state.”
In recent years, as the process has become more partisan, McCoy has become a lightning rod because of his opposition to many of Republican Gov. Haley Barbour’s programs. He often is skewered in Republican-friendly media outlets.
Though some describe him as hard-headed or stubborn, he enjoyed a warm personal relationship with most House members.
“Both of us have strong personalities,” said Rep. Jerry Turner, R-Baldwyn, who along with McCoy represents Prentiss County. “We did have our differences, but during the past eight years I think we have formed a friendship that will last a lifetime.”
In a statement, Barbour said, “Billy McCoy has had a long, illustrious career in the state House, where he has made a difference. Although the media focus has often been on our disagreements, the speaker has been a vigorous supporter of my administration’s economic development programs and projects.
“Over the past eight years I’ve come to consider Billy McCoy my friend, and I know this good man will be missed in the House.”
Whether McCoy had run or not, most have predicted a contentious speaker’s race next year, and the outcome will be decided by which party wins the majority in this November’s elections. Most believe McCoy’s decision to step down will lead to more candidates vying for the post.
Contact Bobby Harrison at (601) 353-3119 or firstname.lastname@example.org.
Highlights of Billy McCoy’s career
- January 1980 – Sworn in for first term as member of the Mississippi House. His first project is working to revamp law to provide additional funds to north Mississippi school districts that do not have revenue-generating 16th Section land. The U.S. Supreme Court helped McCoy’s position by ruling that the state had to provide the north Mississippi districts extra funds to offset the lack of 16th Section revenue.
- 1982 – Voted for Education Reform Act, which created public kindergartens in Mississippi.
- 1987 – Played vital role as vice chairman of Transportation Committee in passage of Four-Lane Highway Act over veto of then-Gov. Bill Allain.
- 1992 – Played key role in passage of the 1-cent sale tax increase to enhance education funding. McCoy was vocal advocate for its passage as chair of the Education Committee. The tax increase was passed over the veto of then-Gov. Kirk Fordice.
- 1997 – Played key role in passage of the Adequate Education Program, which established new formula to fund state’s school districts. The program is designed to provide additional support to poorer school districts to ensure they have an adequate level of funding. The program originated in the Senate where then-Lt. Gov. Ronnie Musgrove was major proponent, but McCoy guided the program through a skeptical House and over the veto of Fordice.
- 2000 – Spurred Legislature to act on proposal by Musgrove to provide multi-year pay raise for teachers – the largest in state’s history.
- 2000 – Helped pass the Advantage Mississippi Economic Development Program. Advantage Mississippi was proposed by Musgrove. As Ways and Means chairman, McCoy was instrumental in passing the bill through the House. It provided the framework that led to the economic incentives that lured such companies as Nissan and Toyota to Mississippi.
- January 2004 – Elected speaker of the House without a dissenting vote to replace Tim Ford, then of Baldwyn, who stepped down after three terms.
- June 2004 – Suffered several life-threatening “mini strokes” as a result of bout of diverticulitis. The strokes came at end of contentious special session where Gov. Haley Barbour’s proposals to provide businesses more lawsuit protection passed over McCoy’s objections. He missed later special session of the Legislature recovering from strokes. When he returned, he had limited use of left arm and had slight speech impediment.
- January 2008 – Re-elected speaker by slim 62-60 margin, defeating Jeff Smith of Columbus. All Republican members of the House voted for Smith.
- 2011 – Legislation naming the Mississippi Department of Transportation building in his honor becomes law.
Bobby Harrison/NEMS Daily Journal