In Harrisburg, most people know Robert "Tommy" Tomlinson as a state senator from Bucks County, serving his fifth four-year term. A career politician, he also represented the people of the 18th House district from 1991-94.
But most people back home in his district know him primarily for his other career — as a full-time funeral director and owner of Tomlinson Funeral Home in Bensalem, which was opened by his father in 1945.
These two careers shouldn’t interfere with each other, but Sen. Tomlinson’s role as chairman of the Senate of Consumer Protection and Professional Licensure Committee is putting his two jobs in conflict, raising profound ethical questions that should concern Pennsylvania taxpayers.
Despite no documented consumer complaints, his committee and the Senate have approved SB 874, pushed by Sen. Tomlinson and his fellow funeral directors to stop legitimate competition with cemeteries in the area of pre-need sales. The name of the committee is ironic since the legislation would create less competition and higher prices for families burying loved ones.
While he isn’t the prime sponsor of SB 874, Capitol insiders refer to it as "Tommy’s bill." Many are rightly calling this bill a product of a "turf war" between southeastern Pennsylvania funeral homes and a company called StoneMor.
Here’s a brief primer on pre-need sales and the incarnation of SB 874: In May 2014, StoneMor entered into a lease to operate eight of the diocesan cemeteries of the Archdiocese of Philadelphia and a management agreement for the remaining five diocesan cemeteries in the Philadelphia area. Before StoneMor assuming operational responsibility of the cemeteries, the archdiocese didn’t offer customers the option of purchasing vaults and caskets directly from the cemetery. As a result, those products were purchased only from funeral directors, with no competition from cemeteries. When StoneMor entered the market, it started selling cemetery merchandise in competition with the funeral directors.
Senate Bill 874 would force cemeteries to adhere to the 1982 Federal Trade Commission’s Funeral Rule, even though the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) has refused to include cemeteries due to a lack of consumer complaints. The FTC reviewed this legislation and concluded Senate Bill 874 could result in potentially higher prices and less consumer choice, without producing any benefits for consumers.
Last legislative session, a similar House bill received a hearing by the House Consumer Affairs Committee. Shockingly, Sen. Tomlinson, a funeral home owner whose business would benefit greatly by the legislation’s passage, was permitted to participate in the panel during the hearing and ask questions. The transcript of the hearing reads like an attack on StoneMor by Sen. Tomlinson and Rep. Micozzie.
At one point, former Pennsylvania Cemetery, Cremation and Funeral Association President Guy Saxton testified: "I know you don’t like StoneMor, but I’m not StoneMor. And this bill puts me out of business. And everything I’ve heard today tells me that this bill is not in good faith. It’s not trying to help the consumer, it’s attempting to put StoneMor out of business, and we’re collateral damage."
Why should Pennsylvania taxpayers care?
Taxpayers from Bensalem to Bethlehem to Butler should worry when a powerful, five-term senator is using the legislative process to protect his family business by eliminating the competition.
The state Senate must answer serious ethical questions on how Sen. Tomlinson is allowed to chair a committee that directly impacts his industry. Further scrutiny is required to understand how Sen. Tomlinson was permitted to vote on the Senate floor for this legislation.
If Sen. Tomlinson were interested in what’s best for consumers, he would reduce the regulatory burden for funeral homes. There is a disparity between how funeral homes and cemeteries are treated under the law. Cemeteries have few restrictions on who can sell preneed products and how the funds from preneed sales are allocated. Pennsylvania government has created an environment that increases costs for consumers. Instead of working to make it easier for funeral home operators and thereby reduce the cost for consumers, Thomlinson is advocating for policies that will increase funeral costs for consumers and hurt his competition.
SB 874 is an excellent example of crony capitalism and a perfect illustration of how government increases the cost of living, or in this case dying, in Pennsylvania.
By Leo Knepper
Citizens Alliance of Pennsylvania