PA senator defends bill that would benefit his private business

Charles Mostoller, Metro

A bill that would effect funeral homes and cemetery merchandise is working its way through the Pennsylvania General Assembly and critics are clamoring it should have been dead on arrival.

Senate Bill 874, co-sponsored by state Sen. Robert “Tommy” Tomlinson, a Republican and chair of the state’s Consumer Protection and Professional Licensure Committee, would allow people close-to-death to put additional money into a trust fund to pay for their own funerals, or for a loved one, in advance.

Tomlinson is also owner and director of Tomlinson Funeral Home in Bensalem, which he inherited from his father, who opened it in the 1940s.

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Some say Tomlinson’s role as chairman of the Consumer Protection and Professional Licensure Committee as well as his ownership in the funeral home is putting his two jobs in conflict, because he stands to gain if SB 874 gets passed.

A story in the Allentown Morning Call reported that, under the current system, cemeteries can pre-sell caskets and vaults and increase their bottom line by claiming they have already delivered the product to the buyer.

Funeral homes turn a profit by selling caskets and other merchandise at the time of someone’s death. Sales made from pre-planned funerals only make up a portion of the revenue, and critics argue Tomlinson is only trying to up those figures and thus pad his pocketbook.

“This is about protecting the consumer in the future,” said Tomlinson, in defending his bill.

“This what the law says today. I’m having a hard time understanding such an outcry on this. When you sell a pre-made vault or casket and they say they’re delivering it, that’s the controversy. You’re supposed to put 70 percent in a trust so there’s money to do the delivery.

“If you spend all the money at the [time of] sale, then there’s no money left over for the delivery. It’s the law now – and most cemeteries – this is what they do. I have no advantage.”

Despite no documented consumer complaints, Tomlinson’s committee and the Senate have approved SB 874.

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The cemetery operator that is fighting Tomlinson the hardest on this bill is StoneMor, based out of Levittown, which owns more than 300 cemeteries and more than 100 funeral homes in 28 states.

“This is hardly consumer protection. It’s a clear conflict of interest that threatens to greatly increase the cost of burials for Pennsylvania families,” StoneMor CEO Larry Miller told Metro.

“This is an incredible abuse of power in Harrisburg by Sen. Tomlinson, who stands to gain a great deal by getting Senate Bill 874 signed into law. This is why people simply don’t trust government today.”

Several months ago, the Federal Trade Commission addressed this issue by submitting written statements to state Rep. Robert Godshall, in response to his request for the FTC’s views on the legislative proposal that would further regulate the pre-need sale of cemetery and funeral merchandise and services in Pennsylvania.

“The bills, if enacted, appear to impose additional restrictions and requirements on cemeteries that engage in the pre-need sale of cemetery goods,” the statement reads.

“These provisions could lessen competition, resulting in potentially higher prices and fewer options for consumers, without countervailing benefits to consumers.”

But Tomlinson is not alone. He said his bill passed out of the Senate with bipartisan support.

Rep. Jamie Santora, a Republican from Delaware County, defended Tomlinson’s bill.

“This came to my attention when I first came into office. I got a visit from an elderly woman who tried to buy a plot and ended up buying merchandise. She ended up buying a casket, a vault. She paid for opening and closing right up front. All she wanted to do was buy a plot. By the time she got out of there, I think she spent around $11,000 or $12,000,” he said.

“When somebody gets into their 60s and 70s, I don’t want to have to worry about the cost of my funeral and then pay for it at today’s prices with the understanding it’ll cover any additional costs of living. It’s the same idea with cemeteries.”

Santora said he expects a vote this month in the House and for it to soon reach the governor’s desk.

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