McCoy Misses People, Not Politics

By Emily Wagster Pettus/The Associated Press
JACKSON — When the Mississippi Department of Transportation opened its new building across from the state Capitol in the mid-1990s, some folks immediately dubbed it the DOT Mahal.It’s big. It’s fancy. It’s home to one of the most powerful agencies in state government. (OK, the Taj Mahal in India is a mausoleum, not a government building. But the DOT Mahal nickname has staying power.)

Now, the MDOT headquarters has an official new name, compliments of the 2011 Legislature.

More than 100 people attended a ceremony Friday where the 10-story structure was dedicated as the William J. “Billy” McCoy Building. The name honors a Rienzi Democrat who served in the House from January 1980 to January 2012, with the final eight years as speaker.

McCoy was instrumental in passing a 1987 program that has built hundreds of miles of four-lane highways, funded by a fuel tax increase of 3.6 cents per gallon.

As vice chairman of the House Transportation Committee at the time, McCoy traveled the state with the committee’s chairman, Democratic Rep. John David Pennebaker of New Albany, to persuade people that a system of four-lane highways would strengthen Mississippi’s economy.

Republican Dick Hall of Jackson, the Central District transportation commissioner since 1999, was a House member in 1987 and supported the highway program. He said most lawmakers were seeking re-election in 1987, and asking drivers to pay more at the pump wasn’t popular.

Democratic Gov. Bill Allain didn’t seek a second term as governor in 1987 but vetoed the bill because he wanted to pay for the highway program without increasing the fuel tax. He said the state should finance the program through bonds or existing revenues.

Hall said lawmakers overrode the veto with only one more vote than the minimum needed — and he credited McCoy with rounding up the votes.

McCoy served in a House district that was represented for decades by his father, Elmer J. McCoy, a Democrat who helped boost the state’s community colleges. Billy McCoy wasn’t shy about expressing unabashed love for the Mississippi House. He never aspired to serve in the Senate or statewide office.

McCoy served as chairman of the House Education Committee in the 1990s, and then as chairman of the powerful Ways and Means Committee.

In January 2004, the House speakership was open because Democrat Tim Ford of Baldwyn, who’d held the position since 1988, didn’t another legislative term. McCoy lined up votes and was elected unanimously.

In January 2008, Republicans and some Democrats unsuccessfully backed Jeff Smith of Columbus (then a Democrat, now a Republican) for speaker. McCoy was re-elected by a thin margin, and he appointed only Democrats as committee chairmen.

McCoy — described fondly by his daughter, Kim, as a “hard-nosed, somewhat cantankerous, crusty old worm farmer” — chose not to seek re-election to the House in 2011, and Republicans took over the House majority. Since leaving office, McCoy has kept his distance from politics.

“I miss the people. I don’t miss the process much,” McCoy said in an interview after the MDOT ceremony. “I lived that a long time. I’ve got another life now.”

McCoy said when he was in the House he loved the legislative process, “even the tough part.”

“It just borders on blood sport now,” he said. “That part, I certainly won’t miss.”

McCoy said he has been “blessed” to have a good life and a satisfying legislative career. He has thoughts about current events, but he mostly keeps those to himself these days. He said with a smile: “I think I’d be amiss to start to pollute the environment with my political opinions.”

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