Billy McCoy, former House speaker and one of the architects of school funding formula, dies at 77

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The end of Billy McCoy’s tenure as Democratic speaker in 2011 marked the last hurrah for the so-called rural white Democrats.

William J. “Billy” McCoy, former two-term speaker of the Mississippi House of Representatives, who played pivotal roles in passing major legislation dealing with public education, transportation and economic development, died Tuesday at the age of 77.

McCoy, a self-professed Yellow Dog Democrat, who represented rural Prentiss and Alcorn counties in northeast Mississippi, had been hospitalized at North Mississippi Medical Center for about two weeks before he died Tuesday afternoon.

“Speaker McCoy will go down in the annals of Mississippi history,” said Rep. Steve Holland, D-Plantersville, who was one of McCoy’s key allies during his tenure as speaker. “He helped transform this state with his dedication to public education and to transportation.”

The funeral service will be at 2 p.m. Friday from Gaston Baptist Church near Booneville. Visitation will be from 4 p.m. until 8 p.m. Thursday and starting at 10 a.m. on Friday – all at the church.

“There is no question Billy McCoy was a man of the people who had a major impact on public education, transportation and economic development for the betterment of the people,” said former state Rep. Bill Miles of Fulton. “I am honored to have been part of his team.”

As chair of the Education Committee, McCoy played a key role in the passage of the Adequate Education Program in 1997, providing additional funds to local school districts with a focus of providing more funds to poor districts, and in 1987 as vice chair of the Transportation Committee helped to steer to passage the program that lead to the construction of more than 1,300 miles of four-lane highways in the state.

“McCoy is a populist in the sense that he identifies with and is an advocate for the common folk and their concerns,” wrote then-Tupelo newspaper editor Lloyd Gray in May 2011. “That’s the root of his decades-long focus on improving Mississippi’s public schools and thus the chances for a successful life for Mississippians of all backgrounds.”

Other colleagues and friends remember McCoy as especially dedicated to improving public education and highways.

“I can look out and see his accomplishments from my house,” said then-Rep. Bo Eaton, D-Taylorsville, in 2012, when officials dedicated the Mississippi Department of Transportation’s downtown Jackson headquarters by naming it for McCoy.

Central Mississippi Transportation Commission Dick Hall, a Republican, served with McCoy in the House in 1987, when the Legislature overrode a veto of then-Gov. Bill Allain to enact a program that increased the fuel tax to fund construction of hundreds of miles of four-lane highways.

“It was Billy McCoy’s leadership that made that happen,” Hall said on dedication day.

McCoy, a Rienzi native, began his House career in January 1980 serving until January 2012, holding a seat once held by his father. His colleagues elected him speaker, the chamber’s presiding officer, for his final eight years. He did not seek re-election in 2011 after a series of health problems and political change. He suffered strokes during his term of speaker, impacting his Appalachian speech pattern and his movement, but not his passion for governing.

As the Republican Party gained traction across Mississippi, McCoy’s House became more and more difficult to retain control over, which encouraged his departure, state Capitol observers say.

In 2011, when McCoy received a Mississippi Medal of Service with 10 other outstanding state citizens, Gov. Haley Barbour said, “McCoy stayed focused on issues he believed were important to Mississippi’s future: transportation, education, health care and economic development.”

He agreed with Hall that McCoy “made his mark” in the Legislature in 1987 when he played an instrumental role in passing the historic four-lane highway program and for the Mississippi Adequate Education program to fund public schools.

Scrappy and relentless are two adjectives McCoy’s friends use to describe him.

He had a temper, too. House members recall times when McCoy might begin to peel off his suit jacket to confront someone else in the chamber.

Opponents saw him as obstinate. When he barely held on to the speakership in 2008 without a single Republican vote, he responded by naming no Republican legislators to committee chairmanships.

David Cole of Batesville, a McCoy friend and ally and retired from decades as president of Itawamba Community College in Fulton, termed McCoy, “a man for all seasons.”

“He gave every sector of our state equal energy and support – from ports and highways to agriculture and health care to education and safety he was a strong advocate,” Cole said. “I especially appreciate that his door was always open and any citizen could have access and opportunity to share information.”

Born Aug. 14, 1942, McCoy was a farmer. He earned his Bachelor of Science degree from Mississippi State University and attended Northeast Mississippi Junior College. He had worked as a loan officer for the Farmers Home Administration, auditor for the state Department of Audit and as a vocational agricultural teacher.

He was a Baptist, a Shriner, a Mason, belonged to the Farm Bureau and was a former trustee for Northeast Mississippi Community College in Booneville.

In 2009 when asked which Democrats McCoy wanted to see run for governor, he said, “I want to see good Democrats run for office where they are dedicated to public service, willing to work with all facets to make our state move ahead. I don’t get into specifics or name calling.”

McCoy also said his “crowning achievement” was being part of successes to fund public education and highways, especially as chairman of the powerful Ways and Means Committee.

As for disappointments, he cited the “partisan atmosphere that has enveloped the Capitol in recent years.”

McCoy is survived by his wife, the former Edith Leatherwood, two children and grandchildren and great grandchildren.

About McCoy’s populism, Gray also wrote, “It’s also been the foundation for his leadership on some of the most important jobs-producing legislative initiatives in recent state history … which transformed the economic landscape of Northeast Mississippi.”

Reporter Patsy Brumfield contributed to this article.