By NEMS Daily Journal
The Mississippi Department of Transportation’s state headquarters building in Jackson now bears the name of former House Speaker Billy McCoy, with an official dedication ceremony last Friday. It’s a fitting tribute to a dedicated public servant.
McCoy retired last year after 32 years in the Legislature, the final eight as leader of the 122-member House of Representatives. While his long career included many battles to improve education, health care and transportation, no single achievement surpasses his role as a principal figure in passage of the 1987 Highway Program.
That legislation transformed the physical and economic landscape of Northeast Mississippi and much of the rest of the state and gave Mississippi one of the top highway systems in the South. It also has saved untold lives, improving not only economic prospects for this area but greatly enhancing the safety of motorists.
Central District Transportation Commissioner Dick Hall, a Republican, was a colleague of the Democrat McCoy in the House when the highway bill passed, and at Friday’s ceremony he called it “the biggest economic improvement” in the state in the last 50 years. Said Hall: “It was Billy McCoy’s leadership that made that happen.”
McCoy’s role in the 1987 Highway Program and numerous other economic development initiatives in the Legislature was ignored by critics who accused him of being “anti-business” because of his lack of enthusiasm for tort reform. That was, to say the least, an unfair and inaccurate characterization.
There is no question that McCoy’s politics were grounded in rural Northeast Mississippi populism, but when it came time for the Legislature to step up and do the things needed to bring business and industry to the region and state, he was there. And his lifelong advocacy of better schools for Mississippi children was in itself a pro-business, pro-economic development position since this state will only be as strong economically as it is educationally.
Even though it passed over a Democratic governor’s veto in a closely contested legislative battle, few people today doubt the transformative impact of the 1987 Highway Program. Yet could it have passed in today’s political environment where any tax increase for any reason – even an investment that paid such extraordinary dividends – would likely be met with overwhelming resistance?
A good transportation system is the lifeblood of commerce, and Billy McCoy had a big part in making Mississippi’s transportation system infinitely better than it had been. His name above the door of the Mississippi Department of Transportation building makes that statement as well as it can be made.