COLUMN: NDP calls Rural Dividend just a ‘slush fund’

COLUMN: NDP calls Rural Dividend just a ‘slush fund’

A regular column by MLA Donna Barnett

When Forest Minister Doug Donaldson made his $69 million announcement to aid forestry workers last September, everyone assumed this was new money being introduced into the system.

Little did we know this wasn’t true, and Donaldson quietly dug into the current budget and redirected funds from existing programs.

Weeks later it was revealed that the biggest sacrifice would come from small communities with a population of 25,000 or less.

The $25 million annual Rural Dividend Fund was established by the previous government to help rural communities diversify local economies, many of which are dependent on forestry.

The special fund was a hit all over British Columbia with over 300 communities benefitting annually.

But all that has come to a stop because Donaldson raided the fund to cover the cost of his inadequate forestry aid program. Now we know why.

According to an email sent by Donaldson’s top advisor, Tim Renneberg, the Rural Dividend Fund represents “just a slush fund for MLAs to do cheque presentations.”

The email released under Freedom of Information legislation, has sparked outrage across rural B.C.

Williams Lake Mayor Walt Cobb remarked, “It is an insult to all the many projects that the fund had provided over its term and belittled all and every project and rural community that received the funding.”

According to Regional District of Kootenay Boundary director Grace McGregor, “It’s not a slush fund. I think communities would find that a very difficult message.”

It would appear Donaldson has some explaining to do, especially since none of the $69 million has even reached eligible forest workers.

Even worse, it seems only 500 workers may be eligible for benefits, leaving an estimated five to ten thousand out-of-work contractors with nothing at all.

To stop job losses, what we really need are new incentives to boost the forest industry itself.