The Passage of the 1987 Highway Program

Owen Cooper of Yazoo City organized business leaders to support what would become the 1987 road plan.

As chairman of the House Transportation Committee, Rep. John Pennebaker of New Albany conducted hearings on the proposed road program and urged fellow lawmakers to adopt it.

It was a concern that the Highway Department would be shut down that led Sam Waggoner, the Central District highway commissioner, to begin conversations that would lead to development of the massive 1987 highway program.

Gov. Bill Allain wanted to abolish the system of elected highway commissioners and vetoed the legislation for the 1987 highway program and the fuel tax increase that funded it. The Legislature overrode the veto, with just one vote to spare in the House.

The Passage of the 1987 Highway Program

EDITOR’S NOTE: The 1987 highway program was one of the most significant developments in Northeast Mississippi’s growth, creating hundreds of miles of four-lane highways, including U.S. 78. In the first of two adaptations from the recently released “Mississippi Politics: The Struggle for Power, 1976-2006,” published by University Press of Mississippi, authors Jere Nash and Andy Taggart recount the developments that led to the passage of the program. Nash, a political consultant in Jackson, is former chief of staff to Gov. Ray Mabus. Taggart, a lawyer in private practice in Madison, is former chief of staff to Gov. Kirk Fordice.

By Jere Nash and Andy Taggart

If you opened a Mississippi road map in 1987, your choice of four-lane highways was limited to the federal interstates, the section of Highway 49 from Yazoo City to Gulfport and the section of Highway 82 from Greenville to Winona. Otherwise, you traveled two-lane roads. Not only were many of the two-lane roads extremely dangerous, but the lack of four-lane highways was blocking economic development throughout rural Mississippi.

In 1985, then-Governor Bill Allain turned his attention to the State Highway Department, which was governed by a three-member commission (the predecessor to today’s Mississippi Department of Transportation). Commissioners were elected from districts drawn east-west across the state, dividing the state into thirds. Allain sought to abolish the elected positions and vest management of the department in a director appointed by the Governor.

Allain’s reform initiative reached a climax in the 1986 Legislative Session when he vetoed the Highway Department’s funding bill. After legislators failed to override his veto, they adjourned, leaving the department without legal authorization to spend money beyond July 1, the beginning of the state’s fiscal year. It was this unrelated crisis over the funding and management of the Highway Department that provided the impetus for the largest public works program in the state’s history.

Two days after the 1986 Legislature adjourned, Central District Highway Commissioner Sam Waggoner drove to Yazoo City for a dedication ceremony. Waggoner’s concern that day was not the almost complete absence of four-lane highways, but the more immediate possibility that Allain would allow the Highway Department to shut down. At the dedication, Waggoner ran into Owen Cooper, a prominent Yazoo City businessman, and after hearing Waggoner’s concerns, Cooper asked a question that would prove crucial to the ultimate passage of the four-lane program: “What can I do to help?”

Waggoner suggested a committee of Cooper’s business and industry colleagues from around the state could convince Allain to convene a special session to authorize funding for the department. By the end of their conversation the following day, Cooper was fully behind the plan. They identified a group to invite to a May 7 meeting, all of whom readily agreed to attend. That meeting produced a public statement calling on Allain to provide funding. With the end of the state’s fiscal year less than two months away, time was running out. Allain, on the other hand, saw a chance to force the Legislature to act on his reorganization proposals.

About the same time, Waggoner paid a visit to Jackson contractor Tom Brown and asked him to finance a poll to gauge public opinion about appointed commissioners and the funding of highways. He agreed and a week or so later, the informal Cooper group released the results showing that 71 percent favored electing the commissioners. Allain called the special session for May 28, though he backed off asking lawmakers to consider his reorganization proposal when a series of meetings he had held around the state generated little enthusiasm for removing the elected commissioners.

Toward the end of the special session – which approved the appropriation bill for the department – Madison County Sen. Bob Montgomery and Kemper County Sen. Eddie Briggs engaged in the time-honored practice of converting a crisis into an opportunity. They asked Waggoner to develop a map showing the roads the department could afford to four-lane with its existing legal authority to issue bonds to cover the cost. Waggoner came back with a map showing 300-400 miles could be constructed under those terms, with no new taxes.

At Montgomery’s urging, Waggoner set up a meeting with Cooper to review the map with him. In Yazoo City, Waggoner rolled the map across Cooper’s conference table. All the roads that would be four-laned were marked in red. Cooper “looked at the map for 20 minutes or more” and turned to Waggoner: “Sam, are you for this map?” After Waggoner assured him he was, Cooper observed, “Do you know that seventy percent of these roads are out of your district?” Gene Triggs, Cooper’s right-hand man, was there and told Waggoner later, “If you had said you wanted your share of roads for your district, it would have been a dead program.”

But the program was alive. Cooper organized another meeting of business leaders from around the state for July 23 to consider Waggoner’s proposals. The group had grown to about 75, and the enthusiasm of the meeting convinced Cooper to request Waggoner to prepare a plan that would put every Mississippian within 30-40 minutes of a four-lane highway.

It was at this meeting that Meridian businessman Gil Carmichael suggested a nickel tax increase per gallon of motor fuel would fund the construction.

Cooper also concluded a permanent organization was needed. A steering committee was soon organized, but they needed a name. Waggoner turned to his friend and public relations consultant Harry Brown, whose recommendation was soon adopted: AHEAD: Advocating Highways for Economic Advancement and Development. Within a few months, the organization had a name, a motto – “A Nickel Will Do It!” – and a consensus on the road program: construction of 907 miles to be four-laned at the cost of approximately $1.3 billion, financed by a five-cent motor fuel tax. When told that the Legislature would never pass a tax increase, Cooper responded: “You are wrong. It’s simply a matter of putting together a campaign to make them do it. We are on to something good and we are on to something big. You don’t do things with little effort …”

Next stop for AHEAD was to recruit New Albany Rep. John Pennebaker and Rienzi Rep. Billy McCoy – then chairman and vice chairman respectively of the House Transportation Committee. After hearing the presentation, Pennebaker and McCoy embarked on a series of public hearings to consider various construction plans, to explore different funding approaches, and to meet with their fellow legislators to convince them of the need for the program.

Along the way, they made two critical decisions. First, they recognized their underlying disagreement with the Governor over the structure of the department would not be resolved. Allain wanted to change the system – by abolishing elected commissioners – before authorizing the expenditure of any new money. Pennebaker and McCoy realized that changing the system was impossible – legislators would never repeal an elected office. The alternative was to write into law exactly how any new money would be spent – remove discretion from the commissioners. That conclusion led them to the second critical decision: the determination of the specific roads to be built over the life of the program would be based on “non-political” criteria such as traffic counts and safety considerations.

By the end of the year, Pennebaker and McCoy’s hearings had attracted more than 1,200 people, helped to develop detailed proposals, and generated support for a comprehensive program. In the meantime, AHEAD had rented office space, employed full-time staff, built a mailing list, recruited endorsements from business and professional organizations, and made plans for a paid advertising campaign when the Legislature convened in January.

On Nov. 8, 1986, at the age of 78, Owen Cooper died of pancreatic cancer. Gene Triggs remembered Cooper calling him to his beside just days before: “Gene, Mississippi needs this four-lane program. Please give it all you’ve got.” Indianola businessman Morris Lewis assumed the AHEAD chair and led the effort with Triggs and many others to realize Cooper’s initiative.

TUESDAY: The 1987 Legislative Session and the four-lane bill becomes law.