Casket-making lawmaker helps kill bill allowing alternative to burial

March 25, 2015
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Imagine the remains of your dearly departed loved one being flushed down the drain.

That’s the grisly image Rep. Dick Hamm conjured in a speech on the floor of the Indiana House that helped sink a bill that would have legalized a new alternative to traditional burial.

But in doing so, the Richmond Republican also staved off a new source of competition to his two casket manufacturing businesses.

His actions are raising concerns about conflicts of interest once again at the Statehouse, where several lawmakers have come under fire in recent months for blurring the line between personal and state business, even as they consider a package of wide-ranging ethics reforms.

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Hamm acknowledged that the new disposal process, known as alkaline hydrolysis, “could reduce the need for cremation, caskets or whatever.”

But he insists that his two businesses — Paul Casket Company and Cambridge City Casket Company — played no role in his decision to oppose the measure.

“I’m not worried about it from the standpoint of how many caskets we’re going to sell or not sell because of that particular means of disposing bodies,” he told the Star. “I’m thinking about from the standpoint of, it’s just not very humane.”

The process is allowed in 10 states and several others are considering it. It uses a mixture of lye and other chemicals to dissolve a body. As with cremation, relatives receive an urn of powdered bone remains at the end of the process.

House Bill 1069 would have allowed funeral homes in Indiana to use alkaline hydrolysis as an alternative to cremation or burial. The measure passed the House Public Health Committee and its author, Rep. Jeff Thompson, R-Lizton, thought it had enough votes to pass the full House.

That’s when Hamm stepped up to the microphone.

He began by disparaging cremation: “When you cremate somebody, 20 percent of that body does not cremate. It has to be crushed, sometimes beat up with a hammer.”

Then he moved to alkaline hydrolysis: “Now we’re talking about we’re going to put them in acid and just let them dissolve away and then we’re going to let them run down the drain out into the sewers and whatever.”

He finished with a call to action: “A country is as great as it is when it takes care of its dead. We keep going backwards and backwards and backwards taking care of the people we’re supposedly to love. And you can tell I feel pretty passionate about this. I urge you to vote no on this bill.”

Supporters of the bill say the speech wasn’t entirely accurate — tradtional cremation leaves closer to 5 percent of a person’s body and chemical cremation uses lye, not acid.

But it was effective.

Public Health Chairman Ed Clere, R-New Albany, rushed to the podium in an effort to salvage the bill. He explained that it had been thoroughly vetted in committee, and that an Indiana company manufactured the equipment used in the process.

But it was too late.

Lawmakers voted it down 34-59. Hamm was the only one to speak against it.

Stuart Yoak, executive director of Indiana University’s Association for Practical and Professional Ethics, said Hamm did the right thing in listing his casket companies on his annual disclosure form and for mentioning his role in the funeral business during his speech.

But he questioned Hamm’s decision to take such an active role in a matter that could impact his private businesses.

“There’s a financial repercussion for Rep. Hamm if this bill goes through,” Yoak said. “Recusing himself from the vote would have been a much more responsible example of representative government.”

Rep. Greg Steuerwald, chairman of the House ethics committee, said he would have preferred Hamm to seek advice from the committee before the vote.

“It would have been good if we had a chance to take a look at it,” Steuerwald, R-Avon, said.

But he and House Speaker Brian Bosma said they didn’t see a problem with Hamm’s actions.

“I did not think it was inappropriate for him to advocate against what he felt was bad public policy,” Bosma said. “He was similarly situated to everyone else in that industry.”

Ethics has taken center stage at the Statehouse after a conflict-of-interest scandal last year involving former Rep. Eric Turner. Turner lobbied in private to quash a temporary nursing home construction ban that would have cost his family business millions of dollars. He later resigned.

Bosma, Steuerwald and their Democratic counterparts have authored a set of reforms that passed the House last month and are now pending in the Senate.

The new rules prohibit lawmakers from voting or advocating on bills that would have a “unique, direct and substantial” impact on their business interests or income.

Hamm is not the first lawmaker to come under scrutiny as the legislature debates the new rules.

In January, Rep. Eric Koch withdrew a bill that would have prevented local governments from regulating oil and gas drilling after The Indianapolis Star reportedthat he had investments in at least 30 gas and oil companies, some with interests in Indiana.

A week earlier, House Education Chairman Bob Behning abandoned plans to lobby in other states for a student testing company that runs Indiana’s end-of-course assessments.

More recently, Bosma and Steuerwald took heat for not immediately revealing that they were doing legal work for the owner of the Indy Eleven soccer team. The team wants legislative permission to use tax money to help construct an $82 million stadium for the soccer club.

[H/T: Indy Star]

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