In 1998 race for governor, reporters quizzed Gray Davis about the death penalty, gun control, immigration and more. Yet as a member of Davis’ communications team, I rarely fielded questions regarding energy, an issue that would largely define and ultimately help end his tenure.

Two decades later, a new crisis is looming and it, too, could spell disaster. If we’re to avoid another energy-like calamity, we must ask today’s gubernatorial candidates how they’ll deal with it. Because failing to tackle issues affecting our youngest Californians will lead to an economic crisis that’ll make the summer of rolling blackouts appear a mere flicker of the lights.

Demographer Dowell Myers found today’s young children will have a doubled economic importance for our state and our nation’s collective tomorrow due to shifts in population and birthrates.

However despite decades of research demonstrating the importance of early childhood – 90 percent of the brain is developed by age five – California lags far behind caring for and educating our youngest. Affordability, distances from home and limited spaces prevent too many children from the early development opportunities they need.

Early childhood education opportunities are critical. A recent study by economist James Heckman, and others, says high-quality early childhood development programs support economic mobility for two generations – freeing working parents to increase wages and providing children essential foundational skills. Moreover, quality early childhood programs deliver an annual return of 13 percent per child through better outcomes in education, health, employment and social behavior.

Yet, only 14 percent of income-eligible babies and toddlers receive subsidized childcare services, and three in four families seeking licensed childcare for infants and toddlers can’t find it. And for those who can, cost is prohibitive ($13,327 per year – roughly the same as a year at UC!).

The need is great. And unlike the energy crisis where solutions were uncertain, we know what works, we just need the will.

Californians agree.

According to statewide polls, nearly nine in 10 voters want California’s next governor to prioritize funding for young children; an overwhelming majority call investing in early care and education “essential.”

The U.S. Chamber of Commerce Foundation’s Center for Education and Workforce underscores these voters’ priorities, calling for business leaders to engage the public in prioritizing early childhood education because it is critical to a strong workforce.

Laying the groundwork for our collective future by prioritizing our youngest Californians in policy and budget decisions is a step in the right direction. Credit is due to Assembly Speaker Anthony Rendon, former Senate President Pro Tem Kevin de León and the California Legislative Women’s Caucus for championing the needs of families with young children.

There is still much to do. Collaboration and cross-sector support will be necessary in continuing this progress.

Now is the time to ask the tough questions of those who want to lead California. We won’t know how today’s gubernatorial candidates will prioritize young kids’ needs unless we ask.

So let’s find out. And hold them to it. Our future depends on it.