Environmental Trust Fund folded into Liberal government’s new ‘smart fund’

“It’s just a way of packaging the things they want to talk about.” -David Coon

Article by: Adam Huras, Telegraph-Journal

Photo: Telegraph-Journal Archive8740808-2300

FREDERICTON • The Liberal government has folded the province’s Environmental Trust Fund into its new $261-million initiative that aims to place an emphasis on education.

But Environment Minister Brian Kenny maintains “nothing has changed” with how the money the government collects from bottle deposits and then distributes to grassroots community projects will be administered.

Despite the introduction of the new education and new economy fund, Kenny said the environmental trust is the responsibility of his department and that legislation outlining its criteria will not change.

Kenny’s words follow comments made by Education Minister Serge Rousselle last month that he will be responsible for the part of the new education and new economy fund under his department.

It has the Progressive Conservatives again questioning if the new “smart fund” really exists.

“It’s so confusing and in all fairness I don’t think anyone really has the answer,” said Progressive Conservative Environment critic Brian Keirstead. “Somebody has to be responsible for it and I’m not sure at this point in time who exactly is responsible.”

The smart fund was announced by Gallant during his January state of the province address to emphasize education and training with more than a quarter of a billion dollars in spending across government departments.

“We need to become the smart province,” Gallant said at the time, indicating that the new program would “allow us to make record investments in education, training and innovation.”

Kenny faced questions about his department’s budget on the floor of the provincial legislature on Tuesday, specifically why the $8.5-million Environmental Trust Fund was listed in a new place within the budget.

“The status quo will remain with this program,” Kenny said, pointing out that the trust fund is actually listed in two places within the government’s budget – both on a page detailing the new education and new economy fund and on a page detailing Environment spending.

Kenny later said that government can’t “operate in silos.”

“It’s important to have a broad-based approach with all of our projects, including the Environmental Trust Fund to make sure that we can engage New Brunswickers, we can become innovative, we can help our education programs,” he said.

But Kenny added that government was already “doing that now with the Environmental Trust Fund.”

He couldn’t say who will oversee the new education and new economy fund.

Green party Leader David Coon said on Tuesday the fund is simply a “political marketing strategy.”

“It’s like the Eaton’s window at Christmas time, they’re just putting things in the window they want everyone to see,” Coon said. “There’s no change.

“It’s just a way of packaging the things they want to talk about.”

The Liberal government has said the details of its $261-million education fund are not yet ready to be released because it is still consulting on how to spend some of the money.

Post-Secondary Education Minister Francine Landry has said she will be announcing how money in the fund from her department will be spent “pending the conclusion of consultations.”

Premier Brian Gallant pledged during the 2014 election campaign that his Liberal government would also ensure 100 per cent of the money in the Environmental Trust Fund goes to grassroots community projects.

The Tories and Liberals have accused each other of dipping into the fund for other purposes.

The Progressive Conservative government was criticized by the Liberals for using the money it generates from people’s bottle returns – about $4 million – toward flood mitigation efforts in the village of Perth-Andover.

Normally the money in the trust fund goes to community groups that apply for projects meant to protect the environment in their communities.

The former Shawn Graham Liberal government faced similar criticism.

The auditor general found in 2009 that the previous Liberal regime redirected $4 million from the fund toward the budgets of the Department of Natural Resources and the Department of Environment to subsidize regular operations.

Keirstead remains unsure what moving the trust fund means.

“I’m not sure whether their goal is to move the Environmental Trust Fund out of Environment,” he said.