There is no better symbol of Sacramento’s failure as California’s capital than the 18-foot-tall stainless-steel sculpture, by artist Jeff Koons, standing outside the city’s downtown arena. It cost the city and the NBA’s Sacramento Kings $8 million. Officially named  “Coloring Book #4,” it’s really a representation of the Winnie the Pooh character Piglet. 

It also expresses Sacramento’s porcine business model. As our state government hogs ever-greater authority for itself at the expense of California communities, our capital city controls more of our tax dollars, and our lives.

We now live in the fifth decade of California’s great era of centralized power. In the 1970s, liberals seeking equality in local school funding and conservatives seeking local tax limits robbed California’s local governments of most of their fiscal power—and gave it to the state Capitol. Ever since, the single greatest enterprise in Sacramento—pursued by governors, legislators and various interests—has been the expansion of stat power. 

Downtown Sacramento is a living monument to our centralized era. In response to all that state power, Californians have had to spend more money to influence and elect Sacramento’s power players. This spending created an army of lobbyists, consultants, organizers, party officials, and media mavens, who turned once-sleepy downtown Sacramento into their campus, with office towers, snazzy venues like the arena, and expensive extra, including Piglet. 

This army of state-level influencers also became major powers in the political life of the city itself—as donors, campaign consultants, lobbyists, and officeholders. Darrell Steinberg, perhaps the most accomplished state legislator of this century, is now Sacramento’s mayor. 

Understandably, such ambitious people wanted to do big things that would get noticed elsewhere—hence the high-profile development downtown. But as they made Sacramento less sleepy, they too often neglected the less glamorous tasks of meeting neighborhood needs and managing institutions. 

So the city struggled in bad times (especially during the Great Recession) and good (failing to build housing during the recovery). The vital newspaper, the Bee, went bankrupt. Even before COVID-19, the city’s largest school district, plagued by chronic mismanagement that has been ignored by elites, was at risk of—irony alert—state takeover. 

Under COVID-19, these two Sacramento dynamics—statewide power, local failure—have accelerated. 

Even as schools and neighborhoods languished, Sacramento obsessively pursued showy projects to make itself a “major league” destination for tourists and conventiongoers, with particularly risky investments in Piglet’s downtown neighborhood. This obsession is the product of a terrible civic inferiority complex, with the far more culturally attractive Bay Area so close by. 

And now it threatens the city’s future.

 The downtown sports arena, which opened in 2016, embodies the treat. While other California cities wisely stopped offering giveaways to the wealthy owners of pro sports franchises, Sacramento helped fund construction of the Golden 1 Center, because it wanted to keep pro basketball’s Kings. But because the city didn’t have the money itself, it borrowed $273 million—arguing that parking revenues would be enough to pay it back. The Bee newspaper, instead of being skeptical about this bond and its risky payback scheme, served as chief cheerleader.

If this was a weak financial proposition before COVID, it became much worse with the pandemic, which shut the arena and made hardly anyone want to park downtown. Now there isn’t enough money to pay off the bond. 

If the city put its people first, it could re-negotiate with bondholders or simply default on the debt. But Sacramento officials have indicated that they may force their citizens to pay the price, by reducing services to cover the arena debt.

The arena scheme is hardly the only example of debt-fueled ambition run amuck. The city faces another set of problems in paying back $350 million in bonds it sold in 2018 to revive the convention center—long a money loser—and to remodel a civic auditorium and a theater. Those bonds are supposed to be paid back from the city’s hotel tax revenues, which have now evaporated. City officials suggest that they could make those payments by pausing or cutting capital improvement projects

All these failures raise questions not merely for Sacramento, but for the rest of California. Chief among them: How much longer are Californians going to put up with Sacramento making decisions about our regions and local communities when the capital city can’t even serve its own people?

Overthrowing our centralized state regime, and Sacramento’s power over us, will take a big popular revolt, and systemic change. That might seem too heavy a lift to Californians, but as another Winnie the Pooh character, Christopher Robin, counseled, “You are braver than you believe, stronger than you seem, and smarter than you think.”

Perhaps we could start small. If we first topple Piglet, then we can overturn the California system Piglet represents. 

Joe Mathews writes the Connecting California column for Zócalo Public Square.