In February of 2013, Gov, Nikki Haley established a Regulatory Review Task Force and charged state agencies to review their regulations to see which might be eliminated in order to reduce the government involvement in business and professional activities that stifles entrepreneurship, small business creation and economic growth. The governor also invited “stakeholders” to submit recommendations, and the Funeral Consumers Alliance of South Carolina did just that.
We were challenging the criteria that the Board of Funeral Service established for selling caskets on the retail market. The criteria include such things as having “clean and accessible public restrooms” and “six adult caskets on display,” along with an inspection by a “licensed embalmer and funeral director.” While there are no criteria that apply to the construction of caskets — you can build your own, purchase one on the Internet or choose to be buried in a shroud — the board makes it practically impossible for a small woodworker to build and sell inexpensive caskets.
This serves only to protect the economic interest of the funeral industry, where caskets are typically marked up by 400 percent to 600 percent over cost. The board, comprised of nine funeral directors and one “public member,” also has been working to keep large retailers such as Costco and Walmart from selling caskets to anyone with a S.C. address.
We spoke at the task force’s hearing in Columbia last summer, testifying that the board had created a barrier to trade without demonstrating a legitimate state interest in doing so, imposed criteria on licensing that were arbitrary and capricious, imposed burdens on the intrastate sale of caskets that do not apply to interstate sales and was unable to provide a compelling interest for such discrimination.
In November, the task force delivered its recommendations to the governor. Among them was the repeal of the Board of Funeral Service’s standards for licensing retail casket sales outlets. The governor sent those recommendations to the agencies, and we thought we had won a victory.
But then something startling happened, even by S.C. standards: On Jan. 21, the Funeral Service board held a teleconference to discuss the recommendations. The minutes of that “meeting” show that the board never read the task force report and that some members didn’t seem to even know about it. There was no one there to speak on behalf of the recommendations, and much of the information that was provided was irrelevant. And then, in an act of pure economic self-interest, the board unanimously voted to reject the recommendations.
We appeared before the board on May 2 and asked it to reconsider the decision, but it has taken no action. Bear in mind that this is a board that was created by the Legislature to serve the people of South Carolina, not the interests of the funeral industry. The cost of the board is underwritten by the taxpayers, but they have no recourse for its decisions.
Citizens should be concerned about this.
They should be equally concerned about the fate of the other recommendations made by the task force: How many of the other state agencies responded to recommendations the same way? Some accountability is in order.
We’ve just begun this fight, but you can help if you contact your state senator and representative and tell them that you want to know why the Board of Funeral Service has rejected the Task Force recommendations that would allow consumers to buy less expensive caskets. You might want to send them a copy of this column as well.
Dr. Gere B. Fulton is president of the board of directors of the Funeral Consumers Alliance of South Carolina; contact him at Gereburke@aol.com.