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Kraft Brushes Off Christie as He Hunts Illinois Jobs

New Jersey Governor Chris Christie
Chris Christie, governor of New Jersey. Photographer: Ramin Talaie/Bloomberg

Feb. 4 (Bloomberg) -- New Jersey Governor Chris Christie flew to Illinois today, trying to sway business leaders to bring their business east. He won’t say whom he’s meeting with. One thing is certain: It’s no one from Kraft Foods Inc.

“We received an invitation to meet with the governor, but schedules were simply not conducive to a meeting at this time,” Michael Mitchell, a spokesman for Northfield-based Kraft, the state’s fourth-largest company by market capitalization, said in an e-mail.

Kevin Roberts, a Christie spokesman, confirmed that the first-term Republican governor went to Illinois on a commercial flight this morning.

The administration wasn’t releasing details of the meetings “in the interest of discretion,” said Michael Drewniak, another spokesman. Drewniak said he didn’t know whether taxpayers paid for the trip.

“He wants to be able to speak with these individuals frankly and candidly,” Drewniak said in an interview. “It’s not necessarily in a company’s best interest to even disclose that they are considering a move.”

Taking Offense

Doug Whitley, president and chief executive officer of the Illinois Chamber of Commerce, said three of his members were contacted by Christie’s office.

“I told them they should go,” Whitley said. “We can be offended by his arrogance, but that’s no reason why we shouldn’t listen to what he has to say. Hopefully, we might learn something about cutting government spending.”

Whitley doesn’t “buy Christie’s tax argument at all,” he said in a telephone interview. “New Jersey is not a better tax state than Illinois.” He declined to identify the companies that met with Christie.

Christie, 48, along with governors in Indiana and Wisconsin, has been trying to pry jobs from Illinois after Democratic Governor Pat Quinn signed a record 67 percent tax increase Jan. 12.

The New Jersey governor, a Republican, said Jan. 25 his Democratic counterpart’s tax increases will “tank the economy” in Illinois.

Illinois is Cheaper

Even with the increase, Illinois’s tax load is less than New Jersey’s, whose state and local tax burden ranked first in the nation in a 2008 survey by the Tax Foundation, a privately funded research and advocacy organization in Washington. Illinois ranked 30th.

Illinois’s corporate tax increase moved it into fourth place from 21st among U.S. states in overall business taxes, the foundation said in a Jan. 13 report.

“We, of course, welcome Governor Christie and we welcome him spending New Jersey dollars on the Illinois economy,” said Brie Callahan, a spokeswoman for Quinn.

Representatives of five of the six largest publicly traded businesses based in Illinois said no meetings with Christie were planned.

Heidi Barker, a spokeswoman for McDonald’s Corp., the state’s largest company according to data compiled by Bloomberg, said in an e-mail the company had “no knowledge” of any meeting.

John Dern, a spokesman for Chicago-based Boeing Co., the world’s biggest aerospace company and fifth-largest Illinois company, said by telephone that no meeting was planned.

Nothing Doing

“The staff that handles government affairs is not aware of such a meeting and they normally would be notified,” Ken Golden, a spokesman for Deere & Co., the Moline-based farm and construction equipment maker which is sixth largest, said in an e-mail.

Jim Dugan of third-largest Caterpillar Inc. said in an e-mail that no one from his company met Christie.

Adelle Infante of Abbott Laboratories, the second-largest company, didn’t return a telephone call seeking comment.

Illinois faced a shortfall of at least $13 billion in the 2011 budget year. Lawmakers raised the personal income tax to 5 percent from 3 percent and the corporate income levy to 7 percent from 4.8 percent.

‘Follow Me’

Christie, during a meeting with business leaders yesterday in Newark, said he would meet with company executives in Chicago today “about having some of them follow me back.”

What business leaders “want more than anything else is certainty,” Christie said. His pitch, he said, would be: “In New Jersey you can be certain that taxes are going down over the next three years. In Illinois you can be certain that they’re going up.”

Christie is increasing confidence by creating an open dialogue between his administration and business interests, said Nancy Lurker, chief executive officer of Parsippany-based PDI Inc., which sells and markets services for biotechnology and medical device companies and employs 250 people in the state.

“Just the fact that you’re seeing hope on the horizon makes an enormous difference psychologically,” Lurker said in an interview after yesterday’s meeting. “I’ve been watching the governor and the signals are very positive, so it certainly leads me to say we’re going to be looking more to invest more in the state rather than taking capital outside.”

To contact the reporters on this story: Esmé E. Deprez in New York at edeprez@bloomberg.net; Terrence Dopp in Trenton, New Jersey, at tdopp@bloomberg.net

To contact the editor responsible for this story: Mark Tannenbaum in New York at mtannen@bloomberg.net.

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