Presley: Mississippians owe Alabama’s Morrow, Foshee debt of gratitude for broadband efforts



Letter to the Editor:

From left, former Alabama Rep. Johnny Mack Morrow, Mississippi Governor Phil Bryant, and Mississippi Northern District Public Service Commissioner Brandon Presley pose in Jackson, Miss., the day Bryant signed new legislation into law allowing rural electric cooperatives in the state to begin offering high-speed Internet service to their customers. Courtesy photo

When Mississippi Governor Phil Bryant signed the Mississippi Broadband Enabling Act on January 30th, it was very appropriate for former Alabama State Representative Johnny Mack Morrow to be present for the ceremony. Morrow and Tombigbee Electric Cooperative CEO Steve Foshee (who could not attend the ceremony due a scheduling conflict) were a huge part of helping my state take a step to connecting our digital divide by bringing high-speed internet service to our people.

On a cold night in December of 2017, I first met Johnny Mack and Steve at a public meeting at the Russellville City Hall that Johnny Mack hosted to discuss forming a Mississippi-Alabama coalition to help solve the lack of rural internet service in both the northwest corner of Alabama and the northeast part of Mississippi. I do not know that I have ever seen two people show more passion on an issue and more determination to solve the problem that is plaguing rural areas in both of our states. I told someone later that night that I felt as if I had been to an old-fashioned camp meeting and that Johnny Mack and Steve converted me on the spot. Their raw passion, drive and determination sent me back across the state line that night determined to work together to bring high-speed internet service to rural areas of Mississippi. What stood in the way of change in Mississippi? A 1942 law that prohibited electric cooperatives from doing exactly what Tombigbee Electric was doing in Hamilton, Alabama with their project to bring excellent internet service to their citizens.

First, Johnny Mack suggested that I form citizen-led task forces in each of the 33 counties that I am elected from to hone in on this issue. The result was that 1,310 Mississippians packed into courthouses, city halls and community centers and signed up as task force members to change our law. Secondly, Steve agreed to host Mississippi Legislators at Tombigbee Electric’s headquarters in Hamilton in June of last year to show them first-hand how they were bridging the digital divide in their area. Forty-three members of the Mississippi Senate and House of Representatives came and spent the day learning from Steve and Johnny Mack. Lastly, both men made the trip to Tupelo for an open forum with Legislators and leaders to answer questions just a few days before the Legislature gaveled into session and our bill was to be presented.

Because of countless phone calls to both men, trips to Red Bay and Hamilton, the first bill signed by the Governor in this Legislative session was the very bill that Johnny Mack and Steve inspired me to push. Johnny Mack told me almost daily that “Brandon, state lines should be invisible lines when it comes to helping one another.” For decades to come, Mississippi communities that receive high-speed internet service from electric cooperatives will owe a debt of gratitude to two outstanding Alabamians that were willing to help. Johnny Mack Morrow and Steve Foshee are public servants of the first order and inspirational leaders who, without a doubt, helped transform my state. Alabama is lucky to have them both.

Brandon Presley is the Chairman of the Mississippi Public Service Commission and is elected to represent the northern 33 counties of the state.

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