Sen. Susan Collins talks to reporters and staff at Global Secure Shipping in Old Town on Oct. 7. Credit: Natalie Williams | BDN

Welcome to Ad Watch, in which the Bangor Daily News’ political team breaks down who is behind political ads you’re seeing and whether what they are saying is true.

An ad from a Democratic group is among the many during the 2020 election that ties Sen. Susan Collins’ vote for Republican tax cuts directly to funding problems with Social Security and Medicare, two programs that have an outsized influence in Maine, the nation’s oldest state.

The tax bill was not directly linked to immediate issues in those programs. While some of Collins’ fellow Republicans have long proposed cuts to both in response to an increased federal deficit and some partisan bills backed by the Maine senator could have wrought cuts if they passed, Collins says she opposes cuts to either program and she recently acted to stop one.

The ad

Who is behind it?

The ad comes from Senate Majority PAC, a Democratic super PAC tied to party leaders including Minority Leader Chuck Schumer of New York, that has spent more than $10 million on Maine’s U.S. Senate race. We are tracking all the outside spenders in the race between Collins, House Speaker Sara Gideon and independents Lisa Savage and Max Linn here.

The major claims, with context

The ad revolves around Collins’ 2017 vote for a Republican tax-cut bill and the measure’s effects on two popular programs, Social Security and Medicare. Collins has voted on many issues related to those two programs in her 24-year Senate career.

For instance, she backed a 2011 bill that would have capped future government spending, which many argued would necessitate future reductions in Social Security and Medicare given their dominant share of federal spending. But she successfully pushed for a resolution preventing a reduction in Medicare spending that could have occurred due to the 2017 tax bill and co-sponsored a bill last year to eliminate a provision reducing Social Security benefits for teachers and other public-sector workers. Gideon has also called for its elimination.

This ad deals specifically with the 2017 tax bill. We have previously noted that the bill lowered taxes for most Mainers while also yielding substantial benefits for corporations. Its direct effects on Social Security and Medicare are fairly limited. Both programs are funded by payroll taxes, with Medicare receiving some funding from other sources.

Republicans including Collins argued at the time that the tax bill would pay for itself due to increased economic activity, but that has not been the case. The federal deficit has increased significantly, rising to $779 billion in fiscal year 2018 and $984 billion for the fiscal year 2019. Some Republicans have argued that the issue of the deficit should be addressed by cutting entitlement programs, such as Medicare and Social Security.

Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Kentucky, told Newsweek in 2018 that he hoped Congress would “get serious” about tackling that spending, implying future reductions. Those comments are cited in the ad to argue that Collins’ tax vote put entitlements at risk.

Many Republicans, McConnell included, have used the growing deficit as a reason to call for future cuts to entitlement programs, though they also called for cuts when the deficit was smaller. But this ad goes further, saying that Congress said it is going to pay for the tax cuts “by reducing Social Security and Medicare.” That hasn’t happened yet, and Collins says she opposes it. Congress could make cuts in other places or increase taxes to raise revenue.

The effects of the tax bill on Medicare may be more likely to impact the Medicare Trust Fund, which is now expected to run out several years earlier than previously anticipated. Reductions in revenue due to the 2017 tax bill account for one of those years, according to Politifact, though other factors account for a larger portion of the problem.

Both Medicare and Social Security are likely to experience issues due to factors such as slow wage growth and an aging population that predated the 2017 tax bill. Though the bill worsened the Medicare Trust Fund’s impending solvency problem, it is far from the only problem. Most importantly, there are no cuts on deck despite some Republicans wanting them.