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By James Macharia
NAIROBI (Reuters) - Kenyan members of parliament, already among the world's best-paid lawmakers, voted on Tuesday to increase their salaries to more than 130 times the minimum wage in defiance of government plans to cut them as part of spending reforms.
President Uhuru Kenyatta, who won a closely fought March 4 election on an economic growth agenda, has implored lawmakers to accept pay cuts and help rein in public sector salaries to free up cash to create jobs.
Many Kenyans view members of parliament as symbols of a greedy political culture, seeking public office as an opportunity for personal gain at the expense of a country mired in poverty and where the unemployment rate stands at 40 percent.
Lawmakers on both sides of the house voted overwhelmingly for higher pay.
"They have taken away our dignity and we must reclaim it," member of parliament Jimmy Angwenyi told the assembly, backing a motion to overturn a legal notice slashing their pay and to increase it to an average of 851,000 shillings ($10,000) a month, up from 532,000.
The average monthly wage in Kenya is 6,498 shillings ($76).
Many Kenyans expressed outrage at the pay increase.
"Did we vote in the wrong guys? This is nonsense! What work have they done in the last two months to deserve this?" prominent businessman Chris Kirubi said on Twitter.
The president has no direct power to determine MP salaries, and the legislators' decision is expected to be challenged in court by civic rights groups.
The lawmakers' move to overturn a reduction in their pay decided by the state Salaries and Remuneration Commission before the election has caused anger that has led to street protests.
But lawmakers said the pay cut was imposed illegally. They argued they needed high wages because constituents expected them to provide charitable support. Some also said that MPs could be vulnerable to bribes if their salaries were set too low.
The Law Society of Kenya (LSK) said it would go to court seeking to challenge whether the MPs can set the new salaries.
"The supreme law (Constitution) ended the era when elected leaders could use their muscle to illegally determine their remuneration," LSK chairman Eric Mutua said in a statement.
Kenyans are worried that by increasing their pay, the lawmakers could provoke demands for higher wages from local officials in the country's newly-demarcated counties, as well as teachers, police and doctors.
Kenyatta, who made an election pledge to achieve double-digit economic growth in his five-year term, wants a slimmer government as part of efforts to make savings. He has proposed a cabinet of 18 members instead of the maximum 22 granted by law.
Officials say the economy will grow 6 percent in 2013, up from 4.6 percent last year.
Kenya's public sector wage bill stands at 50 percent of annual government tax revenue. The International Monetary Fund puts the global benchmark at about 35 percent.
Kenyatta's Jubilee coalition has promised to deliver free maternity care, laptops to primary school children, better roads and a million new jobs a year.
($1 = 85.0000 Kenyan shillings)
(Reporting by James Macharia; Editing by Pravin Char)