From her office window in downtown Sacramento, Bev Hansen can look across L Street to the neoclassic Capitol building, the seat of government for a state with 38 million residents and the world's eighth-largest economy.

Hansen, a former Republican assemblywoman from Santa Rosa, left her lawmaker's seat 21 years ago, but still values her view of who's coming and going from the building where California's laws are made.

News reports make that process seem the work of a governor and 120 elected legislators.

But that's ignoring the role of a well-financed army of 1,500 registered lobbyists paid by more than 3,700 organizations -- including businesses, trade groups and local government agencies -- to protect and enhance their interests.

Four of the busiest lobbying firms have North Bay connections. Hansen's firm stands atop the heap, with $12.8 million in payments during the 2011-12 legislative session.

Overall, about 400 lobbying firms reported more than $345 million in payments. Ninety-one firms received more than $1 million; 126 firms got less than $100,000.

The three biggest spenders on lobbying were the California State Council of Service Employees, Western States Petroleum Association and California Teachers Association, at more than $8 million each.

Winning the money race "doesn't make me happy," said Hansen, a co-founder and partner at Lang, Hansen, O'Malley & Miller Governmental Relations. "Our goal is to get results for our clients."

Any lobbying firm is "always a client or two away" from losing its financial supremacy, she said, and Hansen's firm has some big-spending clients.

Hollywood Park Racing Association, Citizens for Fire Safety Institute (representing manufacturers of toxic flame retardants) and Altria Client Services (representing the Philip Morris tobacco company) each paid Lang Hansen $600,000 or more, according to lobbying financial disclosure reports to the state.

Wal-Mart and FedEx Corp. each paid the firm about $360,000.

What she's truly proud of, Hansen said, is her firm's rating in a 2010 survey of state lawmakers conducted by Capitol Weekly as "best large lobbying firm."

Her company shared that rating with Capitol Advocacy LLC, a firm started in 1999 by John Latimer, who previously worked as chief of staff to former Assemblywoman Valerie Brown, a Sonoma Valley Democrat who took over Hansen's Assembly seat in 1992. When Brown was termed out six years later, Latimer ran for her seat but lost the Democratic primary to Pat Wiggins of Santa Rosa.

Latimer switched to lobbying, joining Sonoma resident Darius Anderson at the inception of Platinum Advisors LLC before starting his own firm. Capitol Advocacy was fourth on the money list, with $9.8 million in 2011-12.

Chip Nielsen Jr., a Marin County lawyer, is a senior partner in Nielsen, Merksamer, Parrinello, Gross & Leoni LLP, a combination law and lobbying firm that placed third on the lobbying money list, with $11.3 million.

Anderson's Platinum Advisors was in seventh place, with $8.6 million in payments. Anderson is a principal of Sonoma Media Investments, which owns The Press Democrat.

Lobbying, a high-stakes game played mostly behind the scenes, depends on knowing the right people and how the lawmaking process works.

"I think we're well-connected," Anderson said. "I think we give great advice."

Anderson, who also owns a real estate development firm, started out more than 20 years ago as an aide to former North Coast Rep. Doug Bosco, who also is a principal investor in Sonoma Media. Anderson's star began rising in Sacramento during former Gov. Gray Davis' tenure, cut short by a voter recall in 2003.

But Anderson's lobbying fortunes continued growing during Arnold Schwarzenegger's administration, bolstered by Anderson's close friendship with Susan Kennedy, a Democrat who was the Republican governor's chief of staff.

Republicans outnumber Democrats on Platinum Advisors' staff today, including Brian Lungren, brother of former Attorney General Dan Lungren, who lost the 1998 gubernatorial race to Gray Davis.

Platinum Advisors' major clients include AT&T and Orange County, which paid the firm $535,000 and $528,779, respectively.

Orange County officials credited Platinum with arranging a meeting last summer with Assembly Speaker John Perez, D-Los Angeles, leading to legislation that restored $48 million to the county budget, the Los Angeles Times reported.

Hansen's firm includes two heavyweight Democrats, Bob Giroux, an advisor to John Burton during his tenure as state Senate president pro-tem, and George Miller IV, son of East Bay Rep. George Miller, a confidant of House Democratic Leader Nancy Pelosi.

Sacramento lobbyists come largely from the ranks of legislative staffers, who know the ropes better than many lawmakers, especially since term limits were imposed by voters in 1990.

David McCuan, a Sonoma State University political scientist, said he knew a staffer who "crossed the street" into lobbying and quadrupled his salary.

California's $93 billion state budget and its nearly $2 trillion economy means there is plenty at stake, he said. Knowing how to kill a bill is as important as getting one passed, McCuan said.

The lobbyist's chief asset is "knowing the informal byways of the institution," he said.

You can reach Staff Writer Guy Kovner at 521-5457 or guy.kovner@pressdemocrat.com.