While negotiations over the state budget are center stage in Raleigh these days, a more obscure bill related to the funeral home industry is garnering an outsized amount of attention.

State Rep. Jamie Boles says proposed legislation to create a “provisional” license for funeral directors is about creating more job opportunities in his own industry.

But others in the funeral home industry, including members of its state board, contend it is specifically designed to help a fellow lawmaker — who happens to be a Democrat — get a license and not have to fulfill current requirements.

They also allege that the bill is being used as a tool to get that member to vote to override Gov. Roy Cooper’s veto of the state budget.

Boles, who is a licensed funeral director and owns a funeral home and crematory business based in Southern Pines, said there is no truth to either of those allegations.

“I have heard it all,” Boles said. “That has not been part of any negotiations, and I have not had any discussions about that. This has nothing to do with doing anyone in the General Assembly a favor.”

Boles said the bill attempts to address what he says is “a shortage in our labor force.” He said the bill would apply to anyone, though published reports recently disclosed earlier drafts that would only apply to lawmakers.

He said the legislation includes a five-year “apprenticeship” period in which the person must meet certain requirements to obtain a license. The provisional license could be extended twice.

“The person still has to pass an exam and has to work under a licensed director at a licensed funeral home,” Boles said. “What this is about is opening up job opportunities, especially for someone doing this as a second career. They should be able to obtain an occupational license based on their past experience. This is a right to work bill.”

Boles said this is similar to the way the rules were prior to 1989.

“This is an attempt to build the workforce back up,” he said.

Boles added that some of the language in this bill “mirrors” that of legislation passed without any opposition (HB770) to “simplify” qualifications for licensure and require boards to recognize “certain apprenticeships and training experiences” in granting licenses. It also includes a requirement that the applicant must pass any applicable exams required by the licensing board.

Boles said he consulted with the staff of the state funeral home board in developing the legislation, which was filed in April.

“It is not like we just came up with this,” Boles said.

The provisional licensing proposal surfaced June 19 in a Senate committee as an amendment to what had been a non-controversial bill up to that point, having passed the House 107-0 in late April.

“It is clearly intended for a member of this House who is not a licensee but wants to be,” Mark Blake, vice president of the N.C. Board of Funeral Service, was quoted as saying in a story in The News & Observer of Raleigh. “This is a slap in the face of every licensee past and present in this state.”

Rep. Howard Hunter, a Democrat from Hertford County, is the only one of four legislators who work in the funeral business who isn’t a licensed funeral director, according to The News & Observer. Hunter told the N&O’s Insider that he did not request the legislation, but he didn’t respond when asked if he plans to apply for a provisional license or if he meets the qualifications in the amendment.

He is one of the sponsors of the original bill, along with Boles and Democratic Rep. Kelly Alexander of Mecklenburg County, who also owns a funeral home.

“It may be members of the legislature that benefit from it, it may be members of some other entity, but that’s not what this is all about,” Alexander told the N&O. “It’s about liberalizing entry into funeral service. This is aimed at trying to make sure we still have a good supply of individuals who can work in funeral service.”

According to a letter from the Board of Funeral Service to lawmakers, an earlier version of the proposal for the provisional license would have made it available only to elected officials.

Boles said that the earlier proposal for the license “was a draft that was confidential … which they (the funeral board) shared with everybody” and “breached confidentiality.”

But prior emails obtained by the N&O do not mention a request for confidentiality.

Alexander also downplayed the draft idea.

“You’ll often find that many things get thrown up and discussed and don’t make it into what is presented,” he told the N&O.

Alexander and Boles have both said the provisional license would help people who are licensed in other states and move to North Carolina, or longtime funeral home employees seeking to move up to a licensed role.

But the funeral board argues that procedures are already in place to license funeral directors from other states. The proposed criteria for the provisional license doesn’t mention out-of-state licenses.

John Harris, president of the Funeral Directors & Morticians Association of North Carolina, told the N&O the change “weakens the strength of the professionalism of the funeral service practice.”

Alexander dismissed the opposition from the industry officials.

“Unfortunately, over time, we’ve seen that whenever there’s a movement to change the industry, there’s been pushback where folks just want to defend the status quo,” he said.

The Senate Agriculture/Environment/Natural Resources Committee unanimously approved the bill and the amendment June 27 despite the strong opposition from industry groups.

Committee members debated representatives from the N.C. Board of Funeral Service over the change, according to N&O’s Insider.

None of the senators on the committee mentioned the funeral board’s claims that the license would benefit a lawmaker, the N&O reported.

Funeral directors who spoke in committee predicted dire results if people who didn’t get a degree in mortuary science are given licenses.

“If we lowered the standards in funeral service, you have the possibility of an unscrupulous funeral director taking money from widows,” James Willoughby, of Willoughby Funeral Homes in Tarboro, was quoted as saying.

The Senate Judiciary gave its unanimous blessing to the amended bill June 28 and it has now been referred to the Finance Committee before it can be considered by the full Senate.

Should the Senate approve the bill, it would have to go back to the House for concurrence on the amendment.

Contact David Sinclair at (910) 693-2462 or dsinclair@thepilot.com.

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