8/8/06 — Once again, state lawmakers are treating the body politic as their personal playground by serving up citizens as grist for the burial industry's mill. Georgia's lawmakers gave commercial cemeteries a gift at the expense of consumers this year with a bill that gutted some of the consumer protections enacted in 2000. HB 910 wrests control of most cemetery practices away from the Secretary of State's office and gives it to — guess who? — owners of for-profit cemeteries.
"It was all political," said an employee of the Secretary of State's Office. Secretary of State Cathy Cox is a Democrat. "We fought it, we went to hearings — the Secretary of State even sent letters to the Senate on the last day."
Readers might be interested to know some of the recent campaign contributions cemetery interests made to HB 910's sponsor, Rep. Carl Rogers. This is not a complete list of Rogers' campaign donations, nor do we know whether other cemetery interests contributed to his campaigns.
NOTE — As of August 8, 2006, Service Corporation International owns or is affiliated with 10 cemeteries in Georgia within 100 miles of Atlanta (we do not know if they own more in the rest of the state). Source: SCI's Web Site location finder.
The bill, sponsored by Republican Carl Rogers, puts the fox among the hens and rolls back laws that protected Georgians from abusive practices by private cemeteries. HB 910:
• Takes away the Secretary of State's authority to make cemetery rules and regulations, and gives the authority to a newly created Cemetery Board composed of six "cemeterians" and just one consumer member.
• Allows cemetery owners to skim half the interest off a customer's prepaid cemetery merchandise account —or 10 percent of the total in the account, whichever is less — if a customer decides to cancel the deal before he uses the merchandise. The 2000 reforms had prohibited this.
• Lets cemetery owners charge customers $125 (up from $50) if the customer buys a monument from someone other than the cemetery. The law characterizes this as "reimbursing" the cemetery for "reasonable costs in assisting in the siting of a monument," and "supervision and inspection of the installation," but this is really just a penalty for smart shoppers who find a cheaper tombstone elsewhere. We also believe such fees may be a violation of federal antitrust rules, though no one seems to be enforcing them.
• Lets cemetery owners charge customers $75 (up from $50) if they want to transfer a grave to someone else, such as a family member.
Oh, and the law requires the Secretary of State to "adjust" these fees annually according to the Consumer Price Index — there's nowhere to go but up.
While the Secretary of State still retains the power to regulate trust funds, escrow accounts, and to investigate cemetery financial misconduct, the day-to-day experience families have at the cemetery is now in the hands of the cemetery owners themselves, by law.
The Atlanta Journal-Constitution quotes Carl Rogers, the bill's sponsor, as saying the consumer abuses that prompted the 2000 reforms are a thing of the past.
"I think 99 percent of all the problems have been taken care of," he said. Rogers, who said he was briefly part-owner of a cemetery, found himself frustrated at the time by his dealings with state workers who enforce nearly 100 pages of regulations.
"I felt it was time to let [cemetery owners] have their own board, and input on their own rules and regulations," he said.
Perhaps we should abolish the Securities and Exchange Commission, too, and let the nice folks on Wall Street look out for investors.
The Georgia Cemetery Association, which supported HB 910 (quel surprise!), describes itself in piously on its Web site:
"THE FUNDAMENTAL PURPOSE for which the Georgia Cemetery Association exists is to inspire constant effort toward the improvement of the Cemeteries of Georgia and their services to mankind."
One might be forgiven for thinking the real purpose of the GCA is found a bit lower in the passage:
"WE BELIEVE that we ought to encourage every family to acquire a family burial estate, as well as other burial merchandise and services, far in advance of immediate or imminent need . . ."and:
"We will encourage and actively participate in all legislation concerning cemeteries that will strengthen and improve our present standards for the protection of the people of the State of Georgia. We believe that all cemeteries must comply with all applicable Georgia cemetery laws."
It's certainly nice to know the GCA "believes" cemeteries must comply with the law, but less than comforting that the law they support is so hostile to grieving families.