ANNAPOLIS – Lawmakers and cemetery operators clashed frequently during a marathon hearing on proposed regulations Wednesday.
Thirty-five people signed up to testify before the Senate Finance Committee on three bills that would establish a state regulatory agency and change trust requirements for pre-planned services.
This is the Legislature’s second attempt to regulate the state’s cemetery and funeral industries, which has suffered bad publicity after several cases of fraud and abuse. Last year, Sen. Martin G. Madden, R-Howard, sponsored a bill to create the State Board of Cemeteries. He reintroduced the legislation this session.
The seven-member board would comprise cemetery operators and consumer advocates appointed by the Governor and confirmed by the Senate. It would license cemeteries and impose fines for violating standards of conduct.
Madden sponsored the legislation at the prompting of a constituent, David Goodman, whose 2-year-old daughter had to be disinterred in 1994 after a lengthy dispute with a cemetery in Adelphi.
The bill passed the Senate unanimously, but was killed in the House, which opted instead to create the Task Force to Examine the State’s Cemetery and Funeral Industry.
That panel was composed of legislators, state agencies, cemetery operators, funeral home owners and consumer advocates. Its recommendations were integrated in a comprehensive proposal sponsored by Sen. John J. Hafer, R-Allegany, a funeral home director and task force member.
Hafer’s bill would create an Office of Cemetery Oversight under the Office of Labor Licensing and Regulation. It would be headed by a director who would set policy with the advice and consent of an advisory council.
State trust requirements for pre-planned death services vary by industry. Funeral homes are required to keep 100 percent in trust for goods and services; cemeteries, 55 percent in trust, according to the task force report. The money must be placed in interest-bearing accounts in a federally insured financial institution.
Hafer’s legislation would require uniform trust requirements for funeral homes and cemeteries — 100 percent for services and 80 percent for merchandise.
The third measure, sponsored by Sen. George W. Della Jr., D- Baltimore, would raise the trust requirements, but also provide for cancellation of contracts and 100 percent refunds to consumers upon request.
Cemetery operators argued that increasing trust requirements would cut into their revenue and force them to raise prices.
“I thought the goal of this legislation was to reduce prices for consumers,” said Eric March, president of Baltimore’s King Memorial Park Cemetery.
Unlike Madden’s bill, which would only affect for-profit operations, Hafer’s legislation proposes to regulate cemeteries affiliated with religious groups, a point of contention during the hearings.
Dick Dowling, executive director of the Maryland Catholic conference, called the comprehensive proposal a “breach of religious law” and said the state should not even consider it.
During a heated exchange with lobbyist Devin Doolan, who represents the Maryland Free State Cemetery Association, Madden accused cemetery operators of paying lip service to the idea of regulation.
In 1996, the association initially opposed regulatory proposals, then changed its position without actually endorsing any legislation.
“We went through this charade last year,” Madden said. “Your industry is never willing to put things in writing about what you are willing to support. I’m glad you signed on in opposition because that’s probably your true position.”
Madden was responding to Doolan’s statement of qualified support for the proposed regulation and the fact that Doolan indicated opposition to all three proposals on the witness sheet. Finance Committee Vice Chairman Arthur Dorman, D-Prince George’s, requested that the trade association submit a written statement to the committee. Sarah F. Rex, the association’s president, agreed to comply with Dorman’s request. -30-